Executive Branch Supervision
The major control over agency power is political. Most agencies are under the direct control of the president, who can replace their directors with the consent of Congress and these directors can replace their employees who are in high- level policy-making positions. For example, when President Clinton assumed office, his attorney general took the unprecedented action of asking for the resignation of the hundreds of U.S. Attorneys around the United States so they could be replaced with more politically compatible appointees. (Lower-level employees are protected by the civil service laws so that they cannot be fired and replaced with political cronies of the newly elected administration.) The president can issue Executive Orders to tell agencies to change what they are doing, as long as the order is consistent with the agency’s enabling legislation. If Congress objects, then it can change the enabling legislation. The president also has the power to reorganize agency functions while seeking approval from Congress.
There are independent agencies that are not under the direct control of the president, although they are still considered part of the executive branch. One example is the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is charged with enforcing the laws governing stocks and securities. Another is the Federal Reserve Bank. It is critical to the economy that these agencies be seen as honest and impartial, rather than just doing the political bidding of Congress or the president. They are governed by boards whose members serve staggered terms whose duration is not contiguous with the president’s term. Although presidents may fill vacancies as they arise, the president cannot remove board members, absent extraordinary circumstances. The Independent Counsel’s office is the most legally unusual of these independent agencies because the counsels are appointed by judges and exercise the prosecutorial power generally reserved to the DOJ. The Supreme Court found this arrangement constitutional only because the Attorney General has the right, if not the political power, to remove an Independent Counsel.