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A Post Election Analysis of the Federal Bureaucracy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Antwain Leach
November 21, 2014

Now that the midterm elections have come to a close, workers within the federal labor force can at least breathe a sigh of relief. The uncertainty surrounding whom shall lead Congress for the next two years is finally over.

The midterm elections for the 114th Congressional session have proven to be an especially important one for the federal bureaucracy. Agency heads and public managers place constant pressure on Congress to eliminate the federal cost-cutting program known as sequestration, or at least to mitigate its effects with waivers, qualified exceptions and other mechanisms to ameliorate its bruising consequences.

Leach - Capitol Hill pic

In 2011 when Congress—led primarily by members of the Tea Party coalition—passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 , which called for across the board cuts to the budgets of virtually every bureaucratic agency and government organization. At the time, government spending seemed to be at an all-time high and the federal deficit was spiraling uncontrollably through the roof. Fast-forward to the present and it becomes clear that these same dire economic conditions are no longer present. For instance, the unemployment rate in October 2009 was at 10 percent,  but just last month it dropped down to just 5.8 percent. The housing sector has consistently performed remarkably well since 2008 and the Federal Reserve has signaled its intention to conclude with its quantitative easing program. Despite these positive economic indicators however, the punishing sequestration legislation is still in full-effect, with its next round of across the board cuts set for fiscal 2016.

One factor that may play a large role in whether Congress decides to proceed with these next rounds of federal cuts is the limited role that the Tea Party now plays within the Republican Party’s governing coalition. Establishment Republicans were able to fend off surging Tea-Party challengers in their primary elections. This element of the midterm elections is significant because as we now consider the present makeup of Republican legislators in Congress, they no longer face the same pressures forcing them to adopt extreme bargaining positions during policy negotiations with those on the other side of the aisle. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that keeping the spending cuts from sequestration would cost up to 1.6 million jobs. But not only were jobs eliminated and many others placed on unpaid leave or even furloughed, but programs such as those created to provide the unemployed with certain skills and tools to make them more employable have been forced to shut down.

Another major purpose of the sequestration program was to limit the ability of the president to further advance his political agenda. By systematically denying federal agencies adequate funding, their ability to implement the strategic vision, programming and projects instigated by the White House becomes even more constrained.

Republicans in 2009 viewed sequestration from their vantage point as the minority party in government. Democrats during this period controlled both the White House as well as the Senate chamber of Congress, while Republicans held their majority within the House of Representatives. Though their bargaining power appeared weak, Republicans still held much leverage over issues pertaining to the federal budget due to powers granted them by the Constitution. Article 1, Section 1, of the Constitution states that, “all bills raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.” This “power over the purse,” gives the House a considerable advantage over matters dealing with federal funding. Since such bills must emerge from the House, the majority party within this particular institution is uniquely positioned to greatly influence what these bills will eventually look like as they emerge from this lower chamber of Congress.

The current midterm elections changed the power dynamics of Washington however. With control of both chambers of Congress, Republicans now find themselves in a different position than six years ago. As opposed to expending great efforts to prevent the other party from implementing their agenda, Congressional Republicans must now proffer their own vision for the nation. If the sequestration program hampered the ability of the Democrats while they controlled much of the federal government, then the same will be true for the Republicans during their stewardship.

Congressional Republicans will now be looking forward to taking credit for quality government output. The achievements of different bureaucratic agencies and federal organizations will be stories that not only the White House will want to highlight, but so too will Congress. And in this same vein, the blame due to the inability of bureaucratic agencies to effectively carry-out their responsibilities or to provide quality services to their primary audiences, will inevitably fall on Congressional shoulders as well. Congress is vested with the responsibility to provide oversight to government agencies. This means that they are also charged with their maintenance and upkeep, and that they also play a role in their general outlook.

As Richard Neustadt once colorfully put it, the president is only one of the five masters that federal agencies are responsible to. The other four masters include Congress, their clients, their staffs and themselves. How the bureaucracy performs is just as much a matter of concern for Congress as it is for the White House. With the government divided between both parties, whom to hold accountable for government inefficiency becomes less apparent to the public. Ultimately, the public will hold both parties responsible. Therefore, in this next session of Congress, attempts by one party to disrupt the policy agenda of the other can be very costly.

David Mayhew once wrote that the nation still functions effectively under divided government. The next two years will help us to determine whether his proclamation still holds true.


Author: Antwain Leach, MPA, is president of the Center for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, a think tank that provides management consulting services to political organizations, social campaigns, as well as to nonprofit organizations. His scholarly research focuses on Congress and its relationship to the conduct and formation of US foreign policy. You can reach Mr. Leach at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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