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Presidential oversight of the bureaucracy

PMI‑2 (EU)
PMI‑2.D (LO)
PMI‑2.D.1 (EK)
Understanding the powers and limitations of the President as they try to manage the bureaucracy that sit under the Executive Branch.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] You can view this diagram as an org chart of the government of the United States, and what we have highlighted in this blue-green color, that is the executive branch, the things that fall under the executive branch. And you can't even see everything, a lot of it falls off of the screen. When you see something like this with roughly 2.6 million people, part of that executive branch, part of the government's bureaucracy, and with the president at the top of the executive branch, you might get the idea that the president is quite powerful. And you would be correct. The president has a powerful role, but there're some factors about how the executive branch is structured and its size that might keep the president from being quite as powerful as you might first believe. First of all, managing 2.6 million people is no easy task. Ask anyone who even has to manage an organization of 20 or 30 people, much less 2,000 people or 200,000 people, it can get quite difficult. You have to manage through many layers of management. The other interesting thing that makes the president's role in the executive branch different than, say, the CEO of a corporation, is that yes, the president can make many appointments, in fact, the president can make several thousand appointments and most of those appointments sit atop the various departments. But most of the bureaucracy, the federal bureaucracy, most of this 2.6 million, they are not appointed by the president. Those are professionals in their field, they are part of the civil service system. So, as they make various judgements and interpret laws in certain ways and execute the machinery of the bureaucracy, they might not be completely in lockstep with the goals of the president, the goals that the president has for their administration. Related to that, the senior appointments, especially the cabinet secretaries, those serve at the pleasure of the president. If the president becomes unhappy with them, if the president finds that they're disloyal in some way, the president can choose to have them leave, essentially fire them, although in the news you'll sometimes see as the president accepts their resignation. But as you get further down the bureaucracy, the president does not have that control. The Supreme Court has ruled that for officers the president can fire them. But as you go down into the regular ranking file, the majority of this 2.6 million people, the president can't fire them without cause. The president can't fire them just because they don't like those employees or they feel that those employees don't completely agree with the president. It has to be for a just cause. This is why you'll see that some parts of the executive branch, say, from the Department of Justice, they might have investigations into things that the president does not want them to investigate into. Often times they will investigate the president. This happened during the Nixon administration, part of the Watergate investigations. This happened under the Clinton administration. This is happening at the time of this video as part of the Trump administration, the Mueller investigation. And the president can't just willy-nilly fire folks if they say, "Hey, why are you looking into my matters?" because of this principle. So they can't fire just anyone within the executive branch. Now, what leverage does the president have to maybe exert more control than the things that I have just described? Well, of course, I've mentioned the appointments that the president can make, and this could number in the several thousands of appointments. I've seen estimates as high as 4,000 appointments that the president can make. They can fire, the president can fire officers. So these would be the senior political appointments, things like the cabinet secretaries, the people at the head of these various departments. But even that could have some significant political consequences. The president could try to shift responsibilities from one part of the bureaucracy to another, or shift budget from one part of the bureaucracy to another. But this is also not so easy, 'cause once again it's a large and complex bureaucracy. The president would have to do it through many layers of management. And at the end of the day things like budget, which department gets how much money, this is, at the end of the day, something that the Congress will decide as once again part of the separation of powers that we've talked about in multiple videos. Another thing that the president can try to do, and we've talked about this in other videos, are the idea of executive orders. Executive orders often times can be a president trying to clarify how a law should be interpreted, how it should be executed upon by the bureaucracy, if the president feels that its bureaucracy is not interpreting laws in the way that meets the president's goals. So I will leave you there. The president clearly the most powerful office in the United States, on top of a 2.6 million person bureaucracy that's part of the executive branch. But the president is not a king, the president is not a chief executive officer of a for-profit company where they can have a lot more control. They're limited by just the inertia of the bureaucracy. They're limited by the ability to hire and fire people. They're limited by the complexity of the bureaucracy. But they do have some tools at their disposal, where they can try to shape the direction and the goals of these 2.6 million federal employees.