There were times this past week when it seemed like the 19th-century Know-Nothing Party had returned to Washington. President Obama insisted he knew nothing about major decisions in the State Department, or the Justice Department, or the Internal Revenue Service. The heads of those agencies, in turn, insisted they knew nothing about major decisions by their subordinates. It was as if the government functioned by some hidden hand.
Clearly, there was a degree of willful blindness in these claims. However, the suggestion that someone, even the president, is in control of today’s government may be an illusion.
The growing dominance of the federal government over the states has obscured more fundamental changes within the federal government itself: It is not just bigger, it is dangerously off kilter. Our carefully constructed system of checks and balances is being negated by the rise of a fourth branch, an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.
For much of our nation’s history, the federal government was quite small. In 1790, it had just 1,000 nonmilitary workers. In 1962, there were 2,515,000 federal employees. Today, we have 2,840,000 federal workers in 15 departments, 69 agencies and 383 nonmilitary sub-agencies.
This exponential growth has led to increasing power and independence for agencies. The shift of authority has been staggering. The fourth branch now has a larger practical impact on the lives of citizens than all the other branches combined.
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