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Bureaucracy at the Boundary

The traditional view of the federal administrative state imagines a bureaucracy consisting entirely of executive agencies under the control of the President as well as regulatory commissions and boards that are more independent of the White House. Administrative law clings to this image, focusing almost entirely on these conventional agency forms. The classic image, however, is inaccurate. The reality of the administrative state is more complex.

Contrary to the traditional view, a considerable bureaucracy exists outside of executive agencies and independent regulatory commissions: the largest employer of nonmilitary government employees, the U.S. Postal Service; the only major operator of passenger trains in the country, Amtrak; the organization that ended the career of cyclist Lance Armstrong, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; the primary responder to domestic emergencies, the National Guard; the major international lender to developing countries, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a part of the World Bank group; and the federal government’s primary oversight agency, the Government Accountability Office, are a few examples.

This bureaucracy lives largely at the boundaries. There are organizations at the border between the federal government and the private sector. There are organizations at the border between the federal government and other governments, including those of states, foreign countries, and Native American tribes. And there are organizations entirely within the federal government that do not fit squarely within the Executive Branch, including but encompassing far more than independent regulatory commissions and boards. The variety, number, and importance of these organizations greatly complicate the structure of the federal bureaucracy as widely perceived.

To widen the lens on the administrative state, while trying to retain some tractability, this Article locates and classifies the missing federal bureaucracy along the borders of more conventional categories and other important boundaries. In addition to placing these missing parts on the bureaucratic map, it also considers movement to and from the center of these categories. The heart of this Article theorizes about these missing components, specifically why political actors would create bureaucracy at the boundary. Under the theory advanced here—and seemingly in reality—these entities are actually the ordinary outcome of the agency design process. This Article also considers whether their creation serves social welfare or democratic legitimacy objectives, suggesting that efficiency may not always trump accountability in these alternative agency structures. Finally, this Article examines important legal issues surrounding these other bureaucracies and how these entities might shape established law and governance of federal agencies.