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Wood: Principals, bureaucrats, and responsiveness in Clean Air enforcements

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Wood. 1988. Principals, bureaucrats, and responsiveness in Clean Air enforcements. APSR.

In Brief

For a long time, scholars thought that agencies acted independently. After all, they have expertise, constituency, vitality, and leadership (see Rourke 1984). A more recent tradition (principal-agent) sees elected officials as having control over the bureaucracy; quite a bit of empirical work supports this view. But Wood shows that both traditions are right, to a degree; although Reagan's assault on the EPA did reduce regulation for a while, there is clear evidence that the EPA was pushing hard against the president.


Month-by-month time series data from 1977 to 1985.

  • Y1: Monitoring activity. How many clean air measurements are they taking each month?
  • Y2: Abatement activity: How many enforcement activities do they undertake each month to punish violators?

Independent Variables

Reagan's assault on the EPA had three major stages.

  • X1: Immediate post-inauguration: He replaced the agency head, the Clean Air head, and pretty much everyone he could with anti-regulation people. The list of things that Reagan did leaves no doubt that he was trying to prevent the EPA from regulating the air at all (almost).
  • X2: FY1982 started almost a year after Reagan took office, with major cuts in spending for the EPA. Since Congress signed off on this budget, the EPA probably (and justifiably) concluded that its major principals (Congress and Reagan) were in consensus.
  • X3: March 1983, the EPA head retires under intense fire from Congress, with many Congressional investigations pushing against Reagan's anti-environmentalism.

Findings (see Figure 2)

  • Reagan's inauguration (before his assault began, but when it was expected to happen imminently) led to an immediate spike in regulatory activity. Apparently, the EPA was trying to do as much as it could before being decimated. Thus, it has independence.
  • Post-inauguration, EPA regulatory activity remained high for several months--despite major personnel changes at the EPA--until...
  • FY1982. The budget cuts forced the EPA to back off. Moreover, Congress's approval of the cuts probably persuaded the EPA that it had no choice.
  • March 1983: Under fire, the EPA head resigns. EPA activity immediately spikes to 1980 levels and continues to rise. The EPA got back to work with vigor. If the EPA were merely responding to Congress's apparent demand for increased regulation, it would have increased its activity--but not to the extent that it did.


  • Although the president can have influence on the EPA--especially if it can cut spending--his influence is limited.
  • Congress also has some influence, but its major activities don't seem to predict major shifts in EPA activity.
  • Much of the EPA's activity is being driven by its people's own desires. The EPA acts independently, to a degree.
  • The EPA was most responsive when the president and Congress were in consensus (i.e. FY1982).

Methodological point

  • Earlier studies used annual time-series data (unlike this study's monthly data) and concluded that bureaucracies were very attentive to executive demands. Wood shows that monthly data is important by converting his data to annual data (Fig 4). In the annualized form, the EPA appears very responsive to Reagan, but in the monthly data it is easier to see that the EPA was actually pushing back.