The most problematic political control is by Congress. Congress may properly
control agencies by changing the laws that govern the agencies. This requires
that both houses of Congress pass the law and that it be signed by the
president. Congress also directs agencies through the appropriations power.
Each year Congress passes a budget that authorizes federal spending. The
budget is specific and the president has only limited power to reallocate
appropriations. Agencies only get the money Congress gives them, and
Congress can specify the funds down to the level of departments and programs
within the agency. These agency budgets are set by congressional
subcommittees and they are usually adopted by the rest of the Congress
without further review. This gives a subcommittee the power to influence
agency policy by cutting the funding for programs it does not like.
This power over agencies is proper because the agency’s power is derived from
the delegation of congressional power. Members of Congress should take an
interest in agency activities and provide a useful ombudsman function to
ensure that constituents in their district are treated properly by an agency.
This congressional casework might involve asking an agency to review a Social
Security disability claimant’s file more expeditiously, or to look into a matter
that has been lost in the agency bureaucracy. Congressional casework
becomes improper interference when the member of Congress tries to force
the agency to make a decision that is against agency policy. This becomes a
particular problem when the casework is being done by the members or
chairperson of the subcommittee that governs the agency’s budget. The
subcommittee can threaten the agency’s future funding if it does not change its
policies to please the chairman or members of its appropriations committee.
The subcommittee can also call the agency director or other personnel before
it in congressional hearings and cross-examine them about agency policy.
Since adverse publicity in congressional hearing can end the career of agency
professionals, this gives the subcommittee considerable leverage over
individuals. This informal manipulation of agency policy violates the separate
of powers, but has, so far, been impossible to attack in the courts.