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Influencing the Bureaucracy: The Irony of Congressional Oversight


  • This research was supported by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Prior versions of the article were presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, LA, and the 2011 Emory Conference on Institutions and Law Making. We thank Larry Evans, John Geer, Tom Hammond, Armando Razo, Bert Rockman, Craig Volden, and seminar audiences at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Indiana, the University of Pennsylvania, and Texas A&M University for helpful comments. All supplementary materials are available online at the AJPS Dataverse or


Does the president or Congress have more influence over policymaking by the bureaucracy? Despite a wealth of theoretical guidance, progress on this important question has proven elusive due to competing theoretical predictions and severe difficulties in measuring agency influence and oversight. We use a survey of federal executives to assess political influence, congressional oversight, and the policy preferences of agencies, committees, and the president on a comparable scale. Analyzing variation in political influence across and within agencies reveals that Congress is less influential relative to the White House when more committees are involved. While increasing the number of involved committees may maximize the electoral benefits for members, it may also undercut the ability of Congress as an institution to collectively respond to the actions of the presidency or the bureaucracy.