Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Review: Congress and the Bureaucracy

Oh my goodness, I've been reviewing books (on my own, not on my blog) since at least May 17th, 2003 (which is when I wrote this review for my own future reference). Also, you can tell I had just graduated at the time, as my review was MUCH longer and MUCH more of an academic exercise (heck, I even put footnotes in). Anyway, I'm posting this because Noumenon said he has had it on his reading list and never gotten around to it. Perhaps now he won't need to. You can also tell that I was reading this before I started my Masters in Poli Sci.

Arnold, R. Douglas. Congress and the Bureaucracy: a Theory of Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.


Douglas Arnold’s intention in this book was to develop a theory concerning bureaucratic influence on geographic allocation of resources among congressmen. To reach this goal, he sets up his theory, based on the interplay of several assumptions about rational decision-making and bureaucratic behavior. The author concluded that his assumptions were born out by the evidence, and therefore bureaucrats do behave as he postulated.

Congress and the Bureaucracy is arranged as a long argument. The first four chapters detail the assumptions with which Arnold will be working in the construction of his theory. The fifth chapter outlines his methodological method. Chapters six through eight apply the theory to three major expenditure programs linked to geographic allocation. Chapter nine measures the results of these studies and their support, or lack thereof, of his theory.

R. Douglas Arnold summed up his theory as follows:

Bureaucrats appear to allocate benefits strategically in an effort both to maintain and to expand their supporting coalitions. When it furthers their purposes, they broaden their program’s geographic scope and increase the number of shares of benefits so that more congressmen can be brought into their supporting coalitions. When necessary, they allocate extra shares of benefits to leaders and to those who are crucial coalition members. ... Each [strategy] is specially tailored to fit a program’s particular situation in Congress... Committees play a prominent role in the politics of geographic allocation.

That is the doctrine. The rest is commentary.

Mr. Arnold’s analysis, as a motivational study, is primarily an application of Darwinian logic to the organization of government. The bureaucrat is assumed to be motivated by a desire to survive and propagate, in that order. A missing portion of Mr. Arnold’s argument is the lack of development of this theme.

Bureaucracies, which are from an economic standpoint wealth consumers rather than wealth producers, exist in the form of a parasite. The least successful parasites are those that either kill or harm their hosts: the most successful, those that aid and abet. A bureaucracy will, therefore, seek to maximize the net benefit the host, in this case, the nation, derives from its existence while simultaneously restraining its growth, i.e., budgetary levels, to avoid attracting attention to itself. Bureaucracies will thus attempt to add useful duties to their roster and avoid those that are not.

This analysis fails, however, if bureaucracies are not seen as monolithic entities, or, as in the case of government, there is a large number of quite independent departments. By multiplying the groups relying on the host for survival, the host faces the tragedy of the commons. A bureaucracy has no incentive for restraining its activities in this situation. Any funding, any responsibilities, any resources of any kind that are not absorbed will not remain available, but will be consumed by a competing department.

Arnold’s argument concerns the impact of geography on the allocation of resources. Since a theory is only as good as its testable predictions, I believe Congress and the Bureaucracy could easily be expanded by further manipulating variables, and should attempt to predict the outcome of an approaching bill.

Congress and the Bureaucracy used geographic receipt of federal funds as the dependent variable. The independent variable was the position, influence, and importance of particular congresspeople in relation to spending programs. The constants included the previously discussed goals of bureaucratic behavior. The independent variable could be further manipulated by tracing changes in geographic allocation to particular districts after a particularly dramatic fall (such as a devastating scandal) or rise (McCarthy’s leap from obscurity) on the part of a Congressperson.

Congress and the Bureaucracy is an excellent text that provides an insight into the oft-inexplicable spending decisions in Congress—such as why political parties, when out of power, will campaign for balanced budgets; yet when they have been returned to power will continue the spending policies of their predecessors. Most major failings were sins of omission, since R. Douglas Arnold seems to have barely scratched the surface in his study even though he dug deeper than any scholar.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Noumenon said...

You can also tell that I was reading this before I started my Masters in Poli Sci.

You mean by the date, or are there thoughts you had that seem uneducated to you now?

Bureaucracies, which are from an economic standpoint wealth consumers rather than wealth producers, exist in the form of a parasite.

Is this summary? It sounds like you explaining a concept of your own for an audience.

Congress and the Bureaucracy used geographic receipt of federal funds as the dependent variable. The independent variable was the position, influence, and importance of particular congresspeople in relation to spending programs.

Sounds like a paper more than a book -- I bet you this got on my reading list when somebody cited it to prove that bureaucracy sucks, and I put it on without knowing much more about it. That was before I learned to check the Amazon reviews of a book before trying it.

The most interesting part of the review is the idea that bureaucracies might try not to increase their scope for fear of attracting a reaction. It's a nice, plausible counterpoint to the "empire building" narrative.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

You mean by the date, or are there thoughts you had that seem uneducated to you now?

Indeed, see the comment that you sighted right below this.

4:20 PM  

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