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Moe: Congressional Controls of the Bureaucracy

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Moe. 1987. Congressional Controls of the Bureaucracy: An assessment of the positive theory of 'Congressional D. Legislative Studies Quarterly 12 (November).


Although Moe speaks appreciatively of the Congressional Dominance school for making real progress toward developing a "coherent general theory of political institutions" (476) based on principle-agent ideas, he faults it for paying too much attention to Congress. Other institutions also exert influence over the bureaucracy. He also makes a major assault on the empirical underpinnings of the Congressional dominance school: The Moran, Weingast, and Calvert studies of the FTC.

Logical problems with "Congressional dominance"

Although Congressional dominance is based on a promising positive theory of institutions (see also Moe 1987, "Interests, Institutions, and Positive Theory"), there is no logical basis in this theory to conclude that Congress actually controls the bureaucracy. Several problems:

Logical flaws

What is control?

The mechanisms of control

It's claimed that Congress has three main weapons to use against agencies, but this claim is flawed.

Empirical flaws with the FTC study


For years, the FTC was simply a patronage base. Congressmen and the president made appointments to please key constituencies. The FTC was not expected to actually do anything much. But the Nader report forced a change. Nixon, therefore, took the lead by appointing two successive FTC chairs to clean house. They fired all the patronage deadwood and made the FTC and activist, pro-consumer agency. Congress went along, though it hardly played much of a role in this change. In fact, many in Congress resisted giving up valuable patronage slots. By ignoring Nixon's role, the Weingast et al studies exaggerate the role of Congress.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Moe, Terry (author)American PoliticsBureaucracyPrincipal-Agent

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