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Introduction to the federal bureaucracy

The U.S. government has three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The executive branch, responsible for running the government, has the most employees, over 2.5 million. This branch includes the president, vice-president, cabinet departments, and independent establishments. These employees form the federal bureaucracy, which is mostly merit-based.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] We have spent many videos talking about the three branches of government of the United States, the legislative branch, which passes the budgets and makes laws. The executive branch, which runs the government, and the judicial branch, that determines whether things that are happening are constitutional or not and can interpret the laws. When we talk about these separate powers and we talk about the checks and balances they have on each other, the thing that you might not have thought about until this point is how many employees each of them have. So I encourage you to pause this video and just make a guess. How many employees do you think each of these branches have, or more importantly, which of these do you think is the biggest? Well to answer your question, the great majority of federal employees are within the executive branch. We're talking about a very large number of people. If you don't include soldiers, we are still talking about more than 2.5 million people under the executive branch. If you include soldiers then we're starting to approach closer to four million people under the executive branch. So what you see on this org chart is that most of it sits under the executive. That's because the executive branch is charged with running the government. So you have the familiar roles, the president, the vice-president, the executive office of the president. Then you have the various cabinet departments right over here, and I could move to the left and the right so you can see them. Things like the Department of Agriculture, Department of Interior, Department of Commerce, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Education, State, on and on and on and on. Then within each of these departments they can be quite, quite large. You could be talking about thousands or in some cases even tens of thousands of employees. But it's not just about those departments. If we go further down in this diagram right over here, you see independent establishments and the government corporations that are under the executive branch. Things like the United States Postal Service, the Peace Corps, you have the Federal Reserve system. These are all under the executive branch. When you take all of these things in total together it's known as the federal bureaucracy. Now the word bureaucracy might conjure up some images for you. You might imagine going to some type of a government office and trying to apply for something and then having to fill out a bunch of paperwork, or sit in line and then wait for something. And so sometimes it gets a bad name. Even the word bureaucratic tends to mean something that is a lot of process and not necessarily something that moves quickly or moves efficiently. But it's worth noting that even though a lot of people, we like to pick on the bureaucracy, and it is worth debating on how efficient government is at certain things, we do need some form of a bureaucracy. Without a government bureaucracy you would not have experts checking on whether your food is safe, checking on which drugs actually work. You would not have thoughtful people who are thinking about how do we run our military, how do we determine how we engage with other countries? So we do need a federal bureaucracy. These are the folks that are doing things like writing and enforcing regulations. They're issuing fines if you have bad actors, maybe a corporation that is polluting where they're not supposed to. Now where do these people come from? Well a lot of times the heads of these various departments, say the Secretary of Defense, who's at the top of the Department of Defense, or the Secretary of State, they are political appointees, they are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, we talk about that in other videos. But the great majority of the bureaucracy does not come from what is known as political patronage. Political patronage is, "Hey, you really helped me with my campaign "and I think you're a pretty decent person, "I'm gonna give you a plum job "at the top of the bureaucracy." And even the word plum job, you should maybe take it with a grain of salt because some of these jobs do require a lot of responsibility. But the great majority of the bureaucracy is not from political patronage, but it's actually merit-based. These are folks, they might take the civil service exam, they might have graduate degrees in something that's relevant, let's say if they're working in the Food and Drug Administration they might know a little bit about chemistry or biology and will often, and no organization is perfect, oftentimes people get promoted for the wrong reason, but for the most part they're going to be promoted based on merit. So it's completely reasonable for us to debate how large this bureaucracy should be. For sure our federal bureaucracy is sometimes inefficient, but we do need it, and we're talking about millions of people, many of whom are experts in their field, who are really just trying to help us run our government.