The recent Kulturkampf is partly a result of the fact that permanent government bureaucracies fit awkwardly with democracy. In the simple version of democratic theory, candidates compete for office in competitive elections based on different practical and ideological programs. Whoever wins the election then seeks to implement their program through the bureaucracy. As Barack Obama once put it, “elections have consequences.” In this theory, the president, as the only official elected by the entire nation, is the “principal” and the bureaucracy is the “agent,” and the former tells the latter what to do. The bureaucracy “belongs” to the executive branch, but the president is supposed to control the bureaucracy through his political appointees.
Reality has often been at variance from the simple theory, and possibly never more so than now. The first problem is that the U.S. constitutional system of “separate institutions sharing powers” gives the president and the Congress an “invitation to struggle” over control of the bureaucracy, as legal scholar Edward Corwin once put it. Congress shapes the bureaucracy with its powers to fund, oversee, and reorganize it. Hence all senior political appointees must serve two masters: the president and the Congress. The courts, too, play an outsized role, as decisions by the bureaucracy are far more likely to face legal challenges here than in European democracies.
While most civil servants tend to be loyal to political superiors, aggrieved bureaucrats do have formidable powers to resist their political masters. Today’s federal bureaucracy comprises roughly 2.7 million civilian employees and 1.5 million military personnel. Nearly 5,000 employees are appointed by the president. Almost all full-time, nonpolitical federal employees are hired under the civil-service system, which gives them substantial job protections. It can be nearly impossible to fire, demote, or suspend a career civil servant.
Such job security effectively gives bureaucrats a troubling degree of independence from their political superiors. They have at their disposal a variety of techniques to sabotage actions ordered by elected officials with whom they disagree. These can include slowing down the pace of work on the job, mobilizing interest groups against an agency’s agenda, or leaking sensitive information to Congress or the news media. The Whistle Blower Protection Act protects some of these powers of obstruction. In sum, whatever the will of the people as expressed through elections, the bureaucracy retains a good deal of autonomy.