A Comparative Analysis of Political Power

A Comparative Analysis of Political Power

Department of Agriculture, Census Bureau, & the Department of the Interior

Bureaucracy has proven to be the accepted system of power regulation within the United States. From the inception of bureaucracy in the earliest days of the US government, the system has proven to be mostly efficient and arguably the best form of protection against tyranny. When viewed in this context bureaucracy can become a complex system of policy, departmentalization, compartmentalization, and regulation.

Because of the nature and design of bureaucracy, there are many variations of political power as some components of government are more visible while other sections are almost invisible. As well, the missions of these bureaucratic divisions in government, serves to create the level of power that each division maintains. Whereas, some government departments or bureaus are regulatory in nature, there are those that those that serve a specific function such as trying to solve a particular social issue. Such examples would include the department of human services, which serves to protect the health of all Americans and provide essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves (HHS, 2009).

Yet there are still other sections of government that serve in constituent form that serve the needs of government and its agencies. For, instance the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) serves the scientific needs of the government. These examples show the variance of government departments, agencies, and bureaus.

The dynamics of American bureaucracy and their political power is best viewed through their structure and purpose. In a comparative analysis one can readily view the similarities and differences between government bureaucracies. These differences are apparent in the analysis of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Census Bureau (CB), and the Department of the Interior (DOI).


The USDA mission, “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management (USDA, 2009).” The USDA accomplishes its mission through 21 different agencies and services that operate under its authority. The mechanics of the organization makes the USDA an unusual department.

The organization maintains such a broad based mission that it becomes difficult to define it as purely distributive or regulatory in nature. For instance, operating within the USDA is the Wildlife Services Agency which has been involved with several controversies in the last 15 years. Notably, in 1997 the agency was accused of abuse of power as it spent over $100,000 helping one rancher kill predatory animals on his ranch. The agent accused of this gross waste spent over 1300 hours on the ranch in question, helping to kill over 70 animals. But because of the broad mission of the USDA this particular agency operates within the boundaries of the law as it ‘managing’ the ranch and thus a component of the US food supply.

Another example of the USDA acting in a regulatory manner is in April 25, 2005, the USDA released Draft Program Standards (ST) and a Draft Strategic Plan (DSP) concerning the National Animal Identification System. This plan and strategy requires that every owner of livestock have every animal they own tagged with a GPS locator. The plan may also include collecting the DNA of every animal. The owner will be required to report: the birthdates of all animals, the application of every animal’s ID tag, every time an animal leaves or enters the property, every time an animal loses a tag, every time a tag is replaced, the slaughter or death of an animal, or if any animal is missing. This initiative by the USDA is an attempt to safeguard the US food supply and to reduce cost of inspections on ranches and farms. The problem with this plan is that it only tracks the animals and does not give and real evidence of maltreatment to the animals or whether they are being fed appropriate nutrition that will make them fit for human consumption. But the bigger problem is that this plan will put small ranchers in debt trying to follow the regulation. The new policy and regulations towards livestock will be enforced with fines.

One can plainly see in these prior examples how the USDA operates in a regulatory fashion, the USDA also acts in a distributive manner, as the organization is authorized to distribute grants, loans, and assistance to farmers and ranchers (Meier and Bohte, 2007). Again the already vague enabling legislation of most bureaus coupled with the enormous size and budget of the USDA, gives this department a wide range of discretion. Especially, in light of the fact that USDA workers often operate alone or out of field offices in rural areas, this only increases the discretion and policy interpreting.

On many occasions the USDA has initiated policy that has been expensive to the American people. In November 2009 the USDA spent $50 million to assist struggling pork producers. Albeit small pork farmers are struggling, however, the USDA made this decision without any oversight and based upon a vague policy to assist farmers with product development.

Along with the many controversial issues involving the USDA there are many positive aspects of the department. First, that the USDA has helped countless farmers through rough economic times. As well the USDA has assisted in developing overseas markets for farmers such as in China. This growth has helped the commercial farmer to weather recession and climate catastrophes.

Another positive aspect of the USDA is that because of its strength, its mission to protect the American food supply is surpassed by no other country in the world. The efforts of the USDA have created the safest environments and food supplies. Disease such as mad cow disease is quickly maintained and stopped from escalating. In other countries disease often wipes out large portions of the cattle population and the people.

The level of protection of the USDA also extends to animals being raised by farmers. Before USDA involvement animals were routinely fed substandard nutrients and even cement for weight purposes during sales and auction. This type of maltreatment is all but nonexistent in the United States. So although the USDA does have some negative aspects, the department has also done an exceeding amount of good. Because of the many positive aspects of the USDA, Americans view the department in a generally good light. To many Americans, the waste of the USDA and over presumption of authority are worth the protection of their food supply.

There are many scholars who believe that the USDA is too large to be managed properly and that some of its agencies and bureaus should be placed under other departments where they can receive the needed oversight. Such examples include the Wildlife division which really has nothing to do with the USDA mission except as vaguely interpreted by the organization. This division typically protects ranches and farms from predatory species that may interrupt the farming ranching process. This is an example of a division that was created by the USDA for the purpose of carrying out its mission. This example truly highlights the power that the USDA has and the financial backing (USDA, 2009).

At times it does seem that there are no limits to the USDA interpretation of policy as anything to do with food gives the USDA license to act. For instance, the USDA started investigating pork farms for possible disease such as H1N1 virus and other swine related diseases. The problem with this investigating is that most of the USDA inspectors are not qualified disease experts and really have no business inspecting these factory farms for this purpose. The policy followed in this instance has historically been for the inspector to ensure that the diseased animals were destroyed and never made it into the food supply. The actual testing of animals for diseases was left to veterinarians and disease control experts (Philpott, 2009).

In some instances the inspectors have begun inspecting these farms for safety hazards. Because of vague interpretation of policy to protect food, the USDA has taken it upon itself to start inspecting farms in the manner that OSHA inspectors would investigate factories. The inspectors are supposed to be looking for violations in food or livestock handling. But again they are interpreting policy as they see fit.

With a budget exceeding $95 billion the USDA seems almost out of control as it does whatever it deems necessary in the completion of its mission. The USDA has drawn a great deal of controversy with its policy initiatives. However, the department does accomplish its mission even if in a manner that is overzealous (USDA, 2009).

Census Bureau

In sharp contrast to a monolithic organization such as the USDA, the US Census Bureau stands almost as a model agency lacking the controversy of the USDA. With just over 5,000 employees and a budget of $7 billion, the census seems tiny by comparison to the USDA. The United States Census Bureau (CB) is charged with the mission of being the leading source of data about the nation’s people and economy. The CB is responsible for the physical counting of people living in the United States, including: citizens, non-citizen legal residents, long-term visitors, and illegal immigrants. The CB, along with the counting process, gathers national demographics, and economic data. The CB performs a population and Housing census every 10 years. An Economic Census is performed every five years and an American community survey is performed annually (Census, 2009).

The census bureau conducts its work in an open manner but serves to protect the privacy of all citizens. From its mission the CB has developed policies that set standards for safeguarding the manner in which its mission is carried out. The function and political dynamics of the organization can best be viewed through the understanding of the bureau policy process. The CB is a distributive organization which gives the bureau a favorable political dynamic. As a distributive bureau, the scope of CB policy is limited to setting standards for data collection and dissemination of information (Meier and Bohte, 2007).

Within this narrow policy structure the CB is one of the most efficient and well funded bureaus in the federal government. The CB finds support from all sectors of government as it is constantly referenced for statistical data. This service has created an interesting political environment in which citizens and government administrators rarely find fault in the CB. The CB operates in a politically neutral atmosphere because its policy scope limits the organization to one primary purpose. This neutrality is also enhanced by the bureau providing necessary statistical data to other government agencies (Meier and Bohte, 2007).

Whereas an agency such as the USDA finds itself, at times, at odds with other agencies and struggling for political and economic support, the census bureau rarely finds itself in these debates. The reason for this lack of controversy is that all other agencies, bureaus, and government departments rely upon census information in constructing rules, policies, and strategies. For example, the USDA uses CB information when developing strategies for rural community development. Population and economic factors must be taken into account when appropriating funds for these projects (USDA, 2009).

Within the context of data collection and communication, the CB’s policy focuses sharply on the maintenance of privacy. The CB must be able to guarantee individual privacy or it will be unable to complete its mission. From this necessity for privacy, the CB has initiated many public policies vital to its operation. An example would be the bureaus policy of data stewardship. Data Stewardship refers to the census bureau’s policy strategy that protects the privacy of clients. Data stewardship is the collection of laws and policies designed into a framework of principles that govern data collection and dissemination. An example of these principles would be, “The Census Bureau will only collect or acquire information about individuals and businesses that is necessary to meet its legal responsibility and fulfill its mission to provide timely, relevant, and quality data about the people and economy of the United States.”

These policies are clearly designed for the operation and continued effectiveness of the CB. Within this framework of principles the bureaus policies are enforceable under the law. Although the CB abides by these laws and policies, as an organization it does not have the power to initiate policy beyond this scope. Policy initiation is not possible for the CB as it serves a limited mission. As well as being limited in mission, the CB’s clientele is so large that there is no particular point of policy focus. In specific, the USDA can work with its client base of farmers and ranchers in order to initiate policies that would benefit both the department and the clients. In the case of the census, since the client base is the entire population there can be no specific area of policy focus.

As a result of the limited scope of policy and being a distributive bureau, the census exists in a favorable environment. There is little dispute between the census as other bureaus and the structure of the organization provides for the autonomous existence of the organization. In a sense all Americans are aware of the bureau but at the same time the organization is given little thought until information is needed. This is one of the luxuries afforded to distributive bureaus, especially those involved in research. However the census bureau unlike NASA does not constantly fear budget cuts and funding loss since the census bureau is necessary for information collection. In example, when the economy is in recession the research for space flight can be postponed as it is not seen as crucial. But, the census cannot be underfunded as the information that is derived from the bureau provides the statistical data needed to create budget appropriations.

There is a growing negative aspect to the census environment. There is a lack of technology which makes the process of tabulating extraordinarily long. This process is obvious when one views the large number of employees and the added number of employees that occurs during the 10 year census when more employees are needed for community counting. Any number of computer systems and software improvements could reduce the size of the bureau and improve efficiency.

Beyond the census bureau having a favorable environment, albeit technologically stunted, the census is not without its critics. One major criticism of the census bureau is that the policy of providing accurate information is compromised by the antiquated technology used in calculating the population. Because the census takes place over an extended period of time, 10 years, the information that has been disseminated is no longer accurate by the time that it is released (Nguyen, 2009).

Another criticism of census policy is that of privacy. There exists an ethical quandary in the data warehousing process. The current system of data allocation is well guarded but creates problems with inaccuracy and efficiency. However, the introduction of an up-to-date computer system will inspire new privacy standards to be enacted in policy. The current census policy does not account for electronic piracy and hacking problems. This lack of policy could compromise the organization’s mission.

Another criticism of the census bureau policy structure is that it lacks the social response to political issues. For instance, the Census Bureau is making little effort to include same-sex couples in the 2010 national population count, which means that many homosexuals may not be included. In addition, because the homeless lack physical addresses they will not be included in the population. The lack of policy dictating new census operations will continue to create holes in the data acquisition and only further increase inaccuracy.

Counter to these criticisms, the bureau states that it has begun initiatives to incorporate better technology into its operations. Under the CB section 515 information quality guidelines, the CB has begun defining new policies. CB has also begun incorporating increased technology and the standards for protecting privacy with new technology.

Proponents of the bureau also argue that the length of census is to ensure accuracy and to make sure that all data is disseminated properly. In conjunction with this argument is that the length of the census is what precludes adapting quickly to new census demands and creation of policy. In specific, 10 years ago same sex marriage was not the political issue that it is today. The incorporation of same sex marriages in the census is not pertinent to the census mission considering that most states have not even ratified same sex marriage into law. It would be premature to begin creating policy for accountability of issues that are new in nature.

In light of criticisms the census bureau has a long history of assisting researchers, government agencies, and even citizens with population data. The organization although plagued with some technological issues and some inaccuracies, is really in many ways a model organization. The limited scope of policy and the distributive nature of the organization have created an autonomous and relatively efficient organization of government.

Department of the Interior

Another wholly different department sharing little resemblance to the USDA and CB is the Department of the Interior (DOI). The United States Department of the Interior (DOI) is the United States federal executive department which is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land. The DOI oversees programs relating to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, and to insular areas of the United States. The Department is led by the Secretary of the Interior, whom is a member of the President’s Cabinet. As a result of being an executive department the DOI has an unusual political power structure. Essentially, the department only answers to the president and is governed by the president (DOI, 2009).

One of the chief accomplishments of the DOI has been to provide tremendous funding for the preservation and reforestation of land within tribal reservations and in the public forests and national parks. The DOI has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the repairing of lands stripped by mining and lumber. As well the DOI has many programs geared towards renewable energy sources as these sources stay in line with the DOI mission to conserve resources (DOI, 2009).

The DOI consists of 11 deferent bureaus, services, and offices. All of these sections function with a high level of autonomy and only report to the DOI Secretary and the President. This lack of oversight is unusual within a bureaucratic system and truly makes a case for the creation of more bureaucracy. Since the DOI inception in 1849, the department has been plagued with scandal and with controversy. Bribery, unethical practices, and lobbying scandals have been at work in the DOI.

The most recent and notable scandal was in 2008, when Inspector General Devaney found unethical practices committed by more than a dozen current and former employees. The scandal was isolated to the Minerals Management Service. Devaney candidly reported, “A culture of ethical failure pervades the agency (Cart, 2009).”

The report stated eight officials had accepted gifts from energy companies in violation of ethics rules. These gifts included golf, ski, and paintball outings. As well there were meals, drinks, tickets to a Toby Keith concert, a Houston Texans football game, and a Colorado Rockies baseball game. The investigation discovered that several officials, “…frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” The New York Times reported, “The reports portray a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch (Cart, 2009).”

Because of the structure of the DOI, members of the organization seem to have little oversight and too much ability to interpret policies. In the instance of the Minerals and Management Service, employees were bribed to look the other way when it came to policies regarding environmental protection and land conservation. The DOI should be a constituent organization and produce policies that manage and conserve the integrity of the countries resources.

However, the problem lies in the fact that the DOI serves two wholly different purposes. On the one hand, the department is constituent in nature serving to manage natural resources, yet on the other hand the governance of territories is also included in this mission. As a result of these completely different missions the DOI has become a diplomatic as well as government management department. This is a problem because the DOI multipurpose creates a problem of interpreting policy as it applies to two different missions. In this context, the DOI cannot function properly as its purpose is skewed.

To confound the problem the DOI operates under the president, but this direct power structure is restrained by the lack of time that the president can allocate to the DOI. As a result, the DOI has become somewhat of a rogue department. Politically, one would think that the DOI would be a political nightmare for the President as it is an extremely large department with over 70,000 employees and a $10 billion operating budget and billions more in grants (DOI, 2009). However, because the DOI operates in a management manner for a land conservation these scandals are often never upsetting to the general public. Even the lands the DOI governs that are populated, the populace of these lands are not considered American citizens and therefore are not afforded the right to vote. The reality of the matter is that the DOI as an organization can initiate policy since it is so large and powerful. This is great example of how a failure to adhere to a true bureaucratic framework in government can create serious problems.

When one compares the USDA, CB, and DOI he or she can begin to see three very different political dynamics at work. In the case of the USDA, although the organization oversteps its bounds by virtue of its broad mission, it however is not plagued with unethical behavior in the same manner as the DOI. It would seem that ethical adherence in bureaus and departments of government are very much related to their mission objectives and purpose.

This is best seen through the DOI mission to manage and conserve US resources. This mission has been weighted with the added diplomatic responsibility of overseeing US territories. Because of this dual purpose the original mission of the DOI is interpreted with too wide of a latitude. The mission itself may be fine but the added responsibility of overseeing territorial lands has driven the DOI away from its mission purpose. Within this context of interpretation this is where many managers and employees of the DOI find themselves in ethical quandaries.

The best example of a efficiently run bureau is the CB. This is also another example of well defined mission. The CB can directly attribute its success as a bureau to the narrow mission that it accomplishes. The CB’s limited vision and mission objective have created a strong autonomous environment that leaves little room for interpretation. As a completely compartmentalized bureau the CB carries out its purpose without deviation. This strength of direction also enhances the political environment of the CB.

The CB unlike either the USDA or the DOI, never finds itself in controversy. The USDA political environment has many debates over the authority of the USDA. If the government were to learn anything from the CB it should be that the USDA mission needs to be more specifically defined in order to limit its policy initiatives and authority. Although there is room for debate that the USDA is a little too large and should perhaps have some of its departments separated, at least by redefining that mission this would stop the ever escalating authority of the FDA into areas of no concern.

As well, the DOI could stand to be reinvented in the spirit of the CB. But instead of trying to solve the problem by making the mission more specific, the DOI needs instead to return to its primary mission and be downsized or have certain services and bureaus placed under the control of other departments or agencies better suited to manage them. For instance, the governance of policy and programs in American Samoa is really more a function of the State Department rather than the DOI. In making changes of this nature the DOI would be returned to a normal manageable size and this would allow for quality oversight.

It should also be noted that, the DOI lacks bureaucratic control as an executive department. It is arguable that because of the size of the DOI and its power that there are times when the organization dictates policy to the president. An example of this can be seen when President George W. Bush took office with the intention of dismantling the DOI. But instead after his first year the DOI budget grew by a billion dollars (Cart, 2009). Perhaps the DOI should be placed under the authority of Congress or at least be given Senate oversight. In this manner there are more checks and balances in the DOI and making unethical behavior less likely.

The fundamental basis of the US government is the bureaucratic system. Through the examples of the USDA, CB, and DOI one can clearly see that even within bureaucracy there are different forms and strengths of power within departments, agencies, and bureaus. Although these systems are not perfect they are however the best guards against tyranny and despotism. The nature of bureaucracy dictates stability and strength but through these comparisons we can see that even bureaucracy evolves to meet the needs of government and people.


The Census Bureau and Its Accountability, Phung Nguyen, The American Review of Public Administration 2007; 37; 226

Cart, J. (2009, January 25). Bush legacy leaves uphill climb for u.s. parks, critics say. Los Angeles Times, Census Bureau Puts Off Counting Gay Marriages Until 2020, Citing “Statistical Problems” Posted on October 23, 2009 in: Gay Marriage marriages-until-2020

DOI. (2009, November 24). About. Retrieved from

The Data Stewardship Program. DS-021, “Policy on Providing Custom Tabulations under Section 8(b) of Title 13 U.S.C., 2005

Philpott, T. (2009, November 16). Why the Usda has no business overseeing conditions on factory farms, and more. Grist, 52, 2–3.

Policy Cover Sheet for U.S. Census Bureau Privacy Principles, retrieved on November 21, 2009,

Politics and The Bureaucracy, Policymaking in the Fourth Branch of Government, Keneth J.Meier, John Bohte, 2007

United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Information Technology Management, Census Bureau Has Implemented Many Key Practices, but Additional Actions are needed. GAO 05–61

USDA. (2009, November 24). Mission statement. Retrieved from

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Sun, Mar 14, 2021. A Comparative Analysis of Political Power Retrieved from

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