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Moe: Congressional Controls of the Bureaucracy

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Moe. 1987. Congressional Controls of the Bureaucracy: An assessment of the positive theory of 'Congressional D. Legislative Studies Quarterly 12 (November).


Although Moe speaks appreciatively of the Congressional Dominance school for making real progress toward developing a "coherent general theory of political institutions" (476) based on principle-agent ideas, he faults it for paying too much attention to Congress. Other institutions also exert influence over the bureaucracy. He also makes a major assault on the empirical underpinnings of the Congressional dominance school: The Moran, Weingast, and Calvert studies of the FTC.

Logical problems with "Congressional dominance"

Although Congressional dominance is based on a promising positive theory of institutions (see also Moe 1987, "Interests, Institutions, and Positive Theory"), there is no logical basis in this theory to conclude that Congress actually controls the bureaucracy. Several problems:

Logical flaws

  • The theories assume control, then illustrate how control might work--but they do not prove that control should be expected, only that it is possible.
  • Since members of Congress (MCs) are rational, we should expect them to worry about oversight only when there is an electoral incentive to do so. The fact that an agency has drifted from Congress's ideal does not mean that Congress will seek to change it--Congress usually has bigger fish to fry. Thus, "fire alarms" don't lead Congress to regulate ALL out-of-line agencies (see McCubbins and Schwartz 1984), only the ones that are in the political spotlight.
  • The theory treats Congressional oversight as a dyadic relationship: One Congress controls one agency. But in reality, agencies must satisfy multiple principles: The Congressional floor, Congressional committees, the OMB, the White House, factions within the agency itself, and so on. The theory should examine these other actors and how they interact, not just Congress.

What is control?

  • It's not clear what Congressional "control" actually is. Whose preferences must the agency reflect: the committee's, the floor's, the major party? And if we can solve this question, then how do we test for control?
  • And how much control should we expect to see? Again, the "fire alarm" logic implies that Congress enforces only certain limits on agency behavior, but that the agency has a wide range of action within these limits. But how wide exactly is this range?

The mechanisms of control

It's claimed that Congress has three main weapons to use against agencies, but this claim is flawed.

  • Budget: Sure, Congress could punish an agency by cutting its budget. But actually changing the budget requires agreement among committees and the floor, which is difficult. More to the point, how does cutting the budget sanction an agency if its problem is that it is underenforcing a particular statute? In this case, punishing the agency by cutting funding only confounds the problem.
  • Threats of legislation. The theory says that agencies don't want Congress to pass tough new laws forcing it to act differently. But the threat of new legislation is weak, since it is very difficult for Congress to pass new laws. It's got to be a major problem before Congress will actually follow through on this threat.
  • Appointments. The theory claims that Congress uses appointment power to control the agency. Problem: The president, not Congress, makes these appointments. Congress generally lets the president appoint anybody he wants (except for to the most prominent positions, like Supreme Court).

Empirical flaws with the FTC study


For years, the FTC was simply a patronage base. Congressmen and the president made appointments to please key constituencies. The FTC was not expected to actually do anything much. But the Nader report forced a change. Nixon, therefore, took the lead by appointing two successive FTC chairs to clean house. They fired all the patronage deadwood and made the FTC and activist, pro-consumer agency. Congress went along, though it hardly played much of a role in this change. In fact, many in Congress resisted giving up valuable patronage slots. By ignoring Nixon's role, the Weingast et al studies exaggerate the role of Congress.

  • Lots of details arguing that the statistical results in the Weingast et al studies were spurious and wrong.