The Bureaucracy's Role in Government

The primary purpose of the bureaucracy is to administer the laws and policies passed by Congress and the president by establishing programs, promulgating rules and regulations, and creating infrastructures to deliver benefits in accordance with the language and intent of the enabling legislation. Sometimes, however, bureaucracies make policy as well. This occurs in two ways.

Iron Triangles

The term “iron triangle” is used to describe the alliance formed by Congress, bureaucrats, and interest groups to make public policy in the group's domain. These iron triangles are often referred to as “subgovern-ments,” and typically operate outside the conscious view of Congress, the president, and the public.

A first cousin of the iron triangle is the “captured agency.” This occurs when an agency promulgates rules favorable to (not critical of) the interest group it's supposed to be regulating. Interest groups “capture” agencies by applying political pressure to members of Congress, who in turn apply pressure to the regulating agency.

Iron triangles have been making policy for several decades, and they operate on the theory of mutual self-interest. Bureaucrats are dependent on Congress for continued authorization and funding, so it is in their interest to work closely with Congressional committees and subcommittees that have jurisdiction over their departments. Likewise, members of Congress gladly solicit legislative input and direction from the interest groups in return for campaign contributions and electoral support. In the end, all parties benefit from the relationship: Congress receives campaign contributions, interest groups get favorable legislation, and bureaucrats preserve their jobs and enhance their standing.

Issues Networks

As the federal government has grown in size and complexity, policymaking has become more nuanced and subtle. With control of both houses of Congress and the White House changing more frequently than in previous eras, “issues networks” have begun to replace iron triangles as the preferred method of policymaking.

Issue networks are composed of individuals and groups that coalesce around a particular policy initiative and then lobby Congress, the president, the courts, and even the bureaucracy to adopt this public policy. Members of the issue network may include legislators, bureaucrats, scholars, activists, and even members of the media.

In 2002, Senator John McCain and his network of supporters — which included Democratic legislators, academics, good-government activist groups, and members of the broadcast and print media — won passage of campaign finance reform (the McCain-Feingold bill), a bill that President George W. Bush opposed but was pressured into signing. It's not unusual for issue networks to form around opposing sides of the same policy debate.

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