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Weingast and Moran: Bureaucratic discretion or Congressional control

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.

Weingast and Moran. 1983. Bureaucratic discretion or Congressional control. Journal of Political Economy.

Main point:

Congress, especially its subcommittees, exercises systematic control over the bureaucracy. This is illustrated by the experience of the FTC in the 1970s.

Place in the Literature


W&M argue that, because of the law of anticipated reactions, an independent bureaucracy and a congressionally dominated bureaucracy are usually observationally equivalent. Lack of congressional oversight hearings does not necessarily imply an independent bureaucracy.

W&M point to three factors that allow congress to exercise control: 1) the budgetary process, 2) threat of active oversight, and 3) control over appointments and reappointments.

Because of the reelection incentive, Congress organizes itself into committees with near-monopoly jurisdiction over a small set of policy issues. Then members self-select onto their most important committees. Thus, the subcommittee's preferences, especially those of the chair, are more important than the overall floor preference.

Evidence: The FTC

The FTC was not a very active agency until the 1970s, when it took on an increasingly large number of high-profile and economically important cases. In 1979-81, Congress acted to reign in the FTC's actions.

W&M argue that the FTC was acting according to [Senate] subcommittee preferences all along. There was an almost total turnover in committee membership in 1977. The subcommittee went from being very activist (as measured by ADA scores) to very conservative.

W&M investigate whether the FTC investigated the kinds of cases that subcommittee members preferred in the 1964-1976 period using a logit (loglinear) model. Their empirics had some serious problems, so they redid this entire piece in Calvert, Moran, and Weingast (1986).

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Weingast, Barry (author)Moran, Mark (author)American PoliticsBureaucracyResponsivenessCongress (U.S.)

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