Melinda Ritchie - American Politics Speaker Series


Friday, November 13, 2020, 1:00pm to 2:30pm



Please register for the seminar here. You will need to have the desktop version of Zoom installed or the Zoom app in  order to access the seminar. 

Melinda Ritchie, University of California, Riverside

"The Bureaucracy: Congress' Backdoor to Policy Influence"

Abstract: The Bureaucracy: Congress' Backdoor to Policy Influence reveals how members of Congress exploit the federal bureaucracy in order to influence public policy outside of the formal legislative process and beyond the public eye. While scholars, journalists, and the public primarily focus on lawmaking within Congress, savvy legislators take advantage of the bureaucracy’s broad discretion over policy implementation to advance their own objectives. The book employs novel data and records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to show how lawmakers use their informal channels of direct communication with federal agencies to evade constraints in the legislative process and within their constituencies. The FOIA documents include records of over 100,000 letters, emails, phone calls, and meetings between members of Congress and ten cabinet departments. This book presents a shift in our understanding of the separation of powers by revealing how members of Congress take advantage of the bureaucracy in order to circumvent the collective authority of Congress and the formal lawmaking process established in the Constitution.

The book introduces a previously neglected strategy legislators use to influence public policy outside of the formal legislative process and beyond the public eye, which I refer to as back-channel policymaking. Agencies’ substantial discretion offers opportunities for accomplishing legislators’ policy objectives in ways that would be difficult for a lawmaker to achieve through the legislative process. The average legislator struggles to gain influence in Congress, stymied by institutions, hierarchy and leadership, polarization, and gridlock. These constraints within the formal legislative process drive legislators to take advantage of the bureaucracy’s discretion as an alternative policymaking venue. The book shows how members of Congress pressure agencies to influence policy and collaborate with them on legislation. Agencies, in turn, are responsive to individual legislators because they want to build coalitions of support in Congress for their budgets and priorities. This interdependent relationship means that agencies, unelected officials, are an integral feature of policymaking in the separation of powers system in which the institution of Congress alone was endowed with authority to legislate. Critically, the bureaucratic venue allows members of Congress to expand their influence through informal channels spanning branches of government.

The  American Politics Speaker Series (APSS)  invites speakers from outside Harvard to present research in American politics. Sponsored by the Center for American Political Studies, the Harvard Department of Government, and Harvard Kennedy School, the series is co-organized by Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, Jon Rogowski, and Ben Schneer. 

See also: Seminar