Federal Government Departments and Agencies

Within the federal government, there are two primary types of organizations: executive departments and independent agencies.

Hawk at FTC Apex Building
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mr. T in DC

Heading the executive departments are members of the president’s cabinet. They report directly to the president and serve at his pleasure by implementing his agenda and carrying out his policies. The heads of the executive departments cannot take a position regarding legislation without the express approval of the White House.

Independent agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission generally consist of multiple member boards. The members of these boards usually serve for a fixed term instead of serving at the pleasure of the president. In most cases, the statute that created the agency requires that most of the board for that agency come from the president’s party, with a minority coming from the other party.

Members of independent agencies are not required to follow the direction of the president. They may choose to take positions on legislation that are different from that of Persuading Congress, by Joseph Gibsonthe president. Practically speaking, agency members that are from the president’s party will typically follow his lead on policy simply because they received their appointment from him.

Both executive departments and independent agencies usually maintain close working relationships with the congressional committees that oversee them. This interaction occurs through informal briefings, phone calls, formal written requests, comments on proposed legislation, etc.

Helping to facilitate this communication are full-time staffs, known as congressional liaisons. It is their job to interact with Congress on behalf of the agencies. These staffs are typically comprised of both political appointees and career civil servants. It is important to note that while such staff members can work to educate Congress, they may not urge third parties to support their positions. If it is your goal to work with an agency regarding a congressional issue, the congressional liaison will typically be the best place to start.

Part of this process may involve the agency requesting Congress to enact legislation or Congress may request the views of an agency regarding a proposed law. If a member of Congress does not have a personal interest in a particular piece of legislation, but an agency does, it is not uncommon for members to defer to the agency’s views. This is particularly common when the issue is highly technical in nature.

To learn more about departments and agencies and how you can work with them, consider TheCapitol.Net’s 1-day course, Understanding the Regulatory Process: Working with Federal Regulatory Agencies, and the Capitol Learning Audio Course Understanding the Regulatory Process, A Five Course Series.

Reference: Persuading Congress, by Joseph Gibson, Ch. 9 The Departments and Agencies.

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For more information about working with Congress, see these resources from TheCapitol.Net:

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