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Kernell: Rural service delivery as a critical test of alternative models of American political development

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Kernell. 2001. Rural service delivery as a critical test of alternative models of American political development. Studies in American Political Development 15: 103-112.

See also Kernell and McDonald 1999.


Are bureaucracies autonomous, or are they merely agents with some discretion? Kernell responds to Carpenter's (2001) assertion of autonomy by showing that Carpenter's own case study suggests that the bureaucracy was only working as Congress's agent.


  1. "State development": Carpenter claims that reform-minded bureaucrats led the push for reform, eventually imposing their will on Congress. They took the initiative to experiment with new programs in the post office (like rural mail delivery to replace fourth-class post offices) and to professionalize America's patronage system. Problem: the "Article 1" problem. Article 1 of the Constitution says Congress controls the civil service--and in practice, we see that happening all the time. If Congress is supreme, why would it pass something it didn't want to pass?
  2. "Institutional politics": (Kernell's view) Institutional rules affect electoral incentives. Responding to changing electoral incentives, Congress pushed the post office to improve. When the Post Office appeared to be acting on its own, it was really responding to pressure from Congress to do so (see note 50, pg 112). Problem: Why would Congress pass a law that eliminates an excellent source of patronage? (Answer: there were electoral benefits for Reps that could take credit for having established rural mail delivery in their districts).


Much of this boils down to alternations between divided and unifed government. It was only when there was a unified Republican government that the party politicians made a serious effort to implement rural mail delivery. When they did so, they targeted delivery for maximum political advantage. Those Reps in greatest need of an electoral boost had the most new mail routes added to their districts.


  • If unified/divided government is the key explanatory variable (pg 108), why didn't this reform happen decades earlier? Or in 1889 (under Wanamaker)? (see Table 1, pg 109). This undermines the entire causal mechanism. Kernell seems to have given only a necessary X, not a sufficient X.
  • Does the fact the Congress was actively involved in deciding what districts should get RDF first really mean that it was a Congressional intiative? Or is it possible that Congress saw the Post Office's good idea and decided to support it for political gain?


The post office is a dutiful agent of Congress, not an autonomous organization. Kernell presents abundant evidence of this fact. Although it is unclear to me why these reforms happened at the specific time they did (and not sooner), it's clear from pp. 110-112 that Congress led the rural delivery reforms, and Congress did so to political advantage--it was not a politically neutral move advanced by the post office.