Bureaucratic Deaths

Bureaucratic Deaths

Surprisingly, more than half the government agencies created since 1946 have ceased to exist.

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"The Politics of Agency Termination: Confronting the Myth of Agency Immortality" by David E. Lewis, in The Journal of Politics (Feb. 2002), Blackwell Publishers, 350 Main St., Malden, Mass. 02148.

Even partisans of activist government tend to assume that once created, a federal agency is forever. Witness the departments of education and energy, still standing despite countless Republican vows to abolish them. But Lewis, a political scientist at Virginia’s College of William and Mary, says a careful look at the post-World War II record disproves the common belief.

Of the 426 administrative agencies established since 1946, he found, 251—or 59 percent—had ceased to exist by 1997. Among the dead: the Office of Technology Assessment and the National Biological Service, both killed off in 1995 after Republicans took control of Congress. It’s true that many agencies simply saw their functions transferred to other organizations. The Council on Economic Policy, born in 1973, was absorbed by something called the Economic Policy Board only a year later. Even so, Lewis says, it appears that "bureaucratic structure may be more malleable" than hitherto supposed. Smaller agencies and ones created by executive order rather than by statute were more likely to vanish. The death toll more than doubles during wartime.

Public servants in a targeted agency have good reason to worry when the White House or Congress passes into unfriendly hands, says Lewis. "Agencies that encounter a president from the opposite party of the president that presided over their creation have a lower survival probability."

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