Conventional wisdom throughout the land is that there are only three branches of government. I beg to differ.
I know you are reading the title and thinking, “executive, legislative, and judicial branches.” How can there possibly be any more? This is a case of the real world colliding with what is taught in schools.
My professional career has given me unique insights. It is this experience that serves as the rationale behind my view on how government really works. Keep an open mind if you can. It was hard for me at first too being a political science major.
The Fourth Branch: Professional Congressional Staff
It is true that every two years the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are up for re-election. A certain percentage of members also retire. The personal staff that work for each Representative or Senator can change quite a bit depending on which party controls each House of Congress. Each office is allocated a certain amount of money for staff and that drives how many people they can hire. But this is not the staff I am talking about at all.
The real work in Congress is done by professional staff that work for various committees and research organizations such as the Congressional Research Office and the Congressional Budget Office. Professional staff that support all the committees and subcommittees generally survive election cycles, especially on appropriations. Why? The work they perform on a daily basis is so specialized that they are impossible to replace. Worst case, they go to work for another committee.
The impact of this near permanent staff on Capitol Hill means legislative and budgetary agendas can survive largely intact long after the Representative or Senator who chaired the full or various subcommittees retires. The Congress has institutional memory and not one of these staff are ever elected. Those who work for research organizations have equally long tenures.
Now before you get crazy and think the Congress is being run by unelected, arrogant people, take a deep breath. The permanency of this staff is a very good thing. Professional staff know how to make the trains run on time. They are dedicated professionals and do things the right way 99% of the time. When Congress becomes dysfunctional, as it is today, it is the elected representatives that are the main problem, not professional staff. That leads me to the next branch of government.
The Fifth Branch: Executive and Independent Agencies Staff
An easy assumption is the executive branch is staffed by people hand-picked by the president. That point is true. The so-called “Plum Book” appointees that must be confirmed by the United States Senate are indeed the president’s buddies.
Presidential appointees, while usually experienced and quite capable, often do not know all the ins and outs of running government. Moreover, the president’s appointees only make up a very small fraction of the entire federal government. The government could never run unless there were permanent staff of all levels in every agency. Presidential appointees, after all, only stay about four years and then move back to the private sector.
This staff, particularly those in the upper echelons, carry tremendous power when it comes to budget policies and certainly Congressional earmarks (i.e. the pork). Each agency has their own Congressional liaison staff whose job it is to look out for their priorities. This is why I tell folks that there is nothing wrong with Congressional earmarks. When Congress forfeits earmarking budgets they actually give up power to executive and independent agencies. Everyone is out to get a piece of the budget. The competition is intense. When federal agencies put the fix in, it is just not called earmarks as it is in Congress.
Now you may ask, what about the president? Doesn’t he control staff that he never appoints? Technically the answer is yes. President Kennedy, as rumor has it, used to call staff out of the blue and chew them out. But the fact of the matter is every president is very busy and must rely on permanent staff, including in the White House. You may be surprised to know that when the president receives a letter, the response can come from any number of government agencies. Last but not least, any president must follow laws, executive orders, and agency mandates that were handed down way before they ever were elected.
Our government is a constant balancing act between competing priorities from the private and public sectors. Professional staff in the Congress and government agencies play a major role in developing policy. They often go into private sector jobs and continue to influence their successors (the revolving door).
The next time you read a major headline on-line it is my hope that you think twice about its genesis. You should not be alarmed by the new information contained in this article. Rather, use it as motivation to write your elected officials more often and get involved in politics at all levels. After all, we write their paychecks!