Divided Government Impacts Agency (In)Action

Summer days in DC are known for humidity, heat and lots of tourists. It’s also when Congress goes on break and the President takes a vacation. But this summer has been busy with activity as Congress and the President debate feverishly over budget, programs, and legislation.  This may not seem unusual, especially in the case of the two-party control government that is in place. Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate while a Democrat President sits in the White House. While it may be easy to guess that the reason for the tension is the mix of political ideologies dominating the legislative corridors of Congress, there may be more. And the impact of those differences has a real impact on what agencies can get done, says Cole D. Taratoot and David C. Nixon in the July/August issue of PA Review.

We saw this recently with the fiasco behind the shutdown of sections of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). When the divided chambers of Congress were unable to come to agreement on funding levels for the FAA, the agency was forced to furlough more than 2,000 workers and shutter or at least put a pause on some 200 construction projects. The closure also meant that the government would not collect more than $200 million in airline taxes.

Taratoot and Nixon argue that this type of impact on the bureaucracy and agency inaction should be expected.

“Inter-branch conflict between the President and Congress leads legislators to seek to retain legislative control over the bureaucracy. As a result, periods of divided government increase statutory control and reduce agency autonomy.”

The result of this tension is that the pendulum between the executive branch and Congress swings widely depending on the level of division between the governing bodies. But a default position, the authors discover, is that the executive branch tends to obtain more control.

“Our examination of the guiding statutes of federal agencies leads us to conclude that divided governments delegate authority to the executive with significantly more detailed and constraining statutes than unified governments.”

And as it relates to the ability of agencies, such as the FAA, to perform, the authors note that divided government, such as the one currently in place, create a stifling atmosphere for agencies that are often strangled by overly restrictive statutes.

“If a federal agency is created under unified government, clientele groups tend to be rewarded with an agency that is less bound by statutory controls and more able to serve the needs of clients.”

The end result is that the actions of a divided Congress has an impact on the bureaucracy, the body thought most outside the reach of political maneuvering. But the reality is that agencies experience a shift in power and statutory control which could mean a busy summer or days of languish in the DC heat.

The bureacracy
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