Congressional Supervision
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.