How Many Federal Agencies Exist? We Can’t Drain The Swamp Until We Know
As the federal bureaucracy has expanded, has America become “One Nation, Ungovernable”?
No one can even say with certainty anymore how many federal agencies exist; yet they make most of the law now rather than our elected Congress. And their drive to protect turf is quite high.
That’s something worth remembering as the Donald Trump administration proceeds with its “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” set to be incorporated into the upcoming fiscal year 2019 federal budget proposal.
For example, there’s a twice-yearly publication called the Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. The Agenda compiles agency regulatory plans and actions in the federal pipeline, and it listed 61 agencies in the Fall 2016 edition. That count that can vary slightly from report to report. But as we’ll see, its tally is on the low side.
Incidentally, the once-routine Unified Agenda’s April-and-October schedule became a thing of the past, as it has been published late or failed to appear at all (as in Spring 2012 under then-president Obama). The Spring 2017 Trump edition of the Agenda has yet to appear, and now Independence Day has passed.
The Trump delay may or may not be attributable to the reorganization effort, and to the prominent executive order requiring the elimination of at least two rules for every new agency rule created. Both would clearly affect agency priorities and reporting, regardless of their resistance.
Notably with respect to the number of agencies, the Administrative Conference of the United States — which lists 115 agencies in the appendix of its most recent Sourcebook of United States Executive Agencies — had the following to say:
“[T]here is no authoritative list of government agencies. For example, FOIA.gov [maintained by the Department of Justice] lists 78 independent executive agencies and 174 components of the executive departments as units that comply with the Freedom of Information Act requirements imposed on every federal agency. This appears to be on the conservative end of the range of possible agency definitions. The United States Government Manual lists 96 independent executive units and 220 components of the executive departments. An even more inclusive listing comes from USA.gov, which lists 137 independent executive agencies and 268 units in the Cabinet.”
That’s right: There is “no authoritative list of government agencies.”
In a 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) noted: “[T]he Federal Register indicates there are over 430 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies in the federal government.”
The Senator apparently was citing the Federal Register’s agency list, which now depicts 440 agencies as December 2016. The online 2016 Federal Register’s index depicted 272. (It had been 257 in December 2015.) The table nearby summarizes these and other tallies.
How Many Federal Agencies Exist?
|Administrative Conference of the United States||115|
|FOIA.gov (at Department of Justice)||252|
|2016 Federal Register Index||272|
|United States Government Manual||316|
|Federal Register agency list||440|
Alongside the 220 executive department components the Administrative Conference referred to as appearing in the United States Government Manual, the latest 2015 Manual (which is not exhaustive) lists 61 “Independent Establishments and Government Corporations,” eight “Quasi-Official Agencies” and 16 “International Organizations.” Furthermore, an online supplement to the Manual notes another 48 “Boards, Commissions, and Committees” in existence.
If no one knows definitively how many agencies, components and commissions exist by whose decrees we must abide, that means we similarly do not know how many employees (let alone contractors) work for the government. The job of reforming the executive branch is an extremely complex one, and the agencies are fighting it and will fight it, with support from dominant media. This entrenchment and collaboration appears to account for some of what is meant by the “swamp.”
Even when we isolate a given agency, it may be hard to tell exactly what is and is not a binding rule or regulation. Since the federal government is so extensive, issuing a formal rule may not even be necessary to achieve bureaucratic ends since agencies can issue “guidance” instead.
That calls out for a concerted, sustained response. The Trump program is focused on what the executive branch can do alone, but also on identifying what will require congressional action, as detailed in Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s memorandum to agencies on the reorganization effort.
Ultimately that congressional action will be required to reverse the delegation (or abandonment) of legislative power to the unelected that characterizes “democratic” governance today.
However, congressional opposition to any administrative state reforms are also part of the swamp. There is little Democratic support, for example, for any of the administrative state reform bills in the 115th Congress that would rein in the bureaucracy.
Originally posted to Forbes.