Improve Legislative-Executive Branch Relationship
In a landmark 1992 study, the National Academy of Public Administration
The relationship between Congress and the executive branch lies at the
heart of the successes and failures of the U.S. Government. Neither
branch acts alone at any stage of the policy process. But the view is
widely expressed that the congressional-executive relationship and the
institutional capabilities of both branches are in trouble--that the
national performance has suffered as a result. The sense of frustration
and distrust in both branches and among the public is very real and very
The NAPA study, testimony before the Joint Committee on the Organization
of Congress, and other recent studies all highlight problems of
gridlock, distrust, and a lack of interest in management- related
issues. The studies all point to the need for both branches to
Gridlock has been a major theme in American national politics for the
past few years. Both voters and public officials have expressed
frustration with a system that has become increasingly bogged down in
partisan and interbranch squabbles--and sometimes competition between
the two houses of Congress.
Some observers have attributed the problem to a dozen years of divided
government. But the problem is deeper than that; it can be seen in the
institutional structures. For example, multiple congressional committees
claim jurisdiction over an issue and some executive branch agency heads
find themselves repeatedly called before committees to repeat the same
thing over and over.
Distrust stems from poor communication, and often executive branch
agencies pay a heavy price. Some call it "micromanagement," but there is
often blame enough for both sides. For example, in 1984, the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was slow and unfocused in the
implementation of the 1976 Resource and Recovery Act and ignored
important technological information. As a result, Congress specified, in
statute, deadlines and very specific levels of environmental protection.
The initial result of these actions was positive--EPA met the deadlines.
However, the deadlines were blamed for thwarting the development of an
adequate, cost-effective implementation framework.(3)
Another example of distrust is the number of congressionally mandated
reports. The are nearly 5,000 congressionally mandated reports; of
these, more than 400 are for the Defense Department alone.
Part of the problem also lies with a long-standing lack of interest in
long-term management issues. As one Congressional Research Service
analyst put it, Congress and the Executive Branch have adopted the "fire
alarm" approach--managing in an ad hoc, reactive, and narrowly focused
way--in contrast to the "police patrol" approach--involving preventive,
Congress often sees the executive branch as neglecting the management
function, which leads to its involvement. This is especially evident
when the public media identifies "horror stories."
Managing to exceptions and anomalies identified by the media is
expensive. The costs of a system intolerant to acceptable margins of
error, or without a process to appropriately respond, far outweigh the
benefits to the public. Government's current tendency is to react to bad
press by enacting a new law or regulation to show the American public
that it is responsive. It is this approach that has led to 889
procurement laws governing Pentagon purchases. This approach costs
taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually because of the extra
staff and higher costs contractors have to charge to comply with federal
requirements--with little benefit.
Need for Change
The public has become increasingly dissatisfied and distrustful of
government. The public feels 48 cents of every tax dollar is wasted, and
only 20 percent of Americans believe the federal government does the
right thing most of the time. Much of this stems from the perception of
gridlock the public sees between Congress and the executive branch--and
the public's frustration over its inability to hold either accountable.
Also, many other NPR recommendations that are targeted to improving the
long-term management environment--reducing congressionally mandated
reports, biennial budgeting, developing performance measures, and
streamlining the procurement and civil service systems- -are dependent
on improving comity and trust between Congress and the executive branch.
As a result, the need for improvement is imperative.
It is essential that the legislative and executive branches engage in
developing a partnership for the future--a partnership that preserves
constitutional separations of power and ensures accountability for
Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports
Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting, BGT02: Effectively Implement
the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.
Streamlining Management Control, SMC06: Reduce the Burden of
Congressionally Mandated Reports.
Improving Regulatory Systems, REG09: Improve Agency and Congressional
1. See National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), Beyond
Distrust: Building Bridges Between Congress and the Executive
(Washington, D.C., January 1992).
2. See testimony and working papers provided to the Joint Committee on
the Organization of Congress, including: American Enterprise Institute
and Brookings Institution, Renewing Congress, A Second Report
(Washington, D.C., 1993); Council for Excellence in Government, A
Congressional Oversight Process That Leads to Better Legislation and
Higher Executive Branch Performance (Washington, D.C., June 23, 1993);
Center for Strategic and International Studies, Congressional Oversight
of National Security: A Mandate for Change (Washington, D.C., 1992).
3. See NAPA.
4. Kaiser, Frederick M., Congressional Research Service Memorandum to
the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, "Background and
Issues in Reforming and Restructuring Legislative-Executive Relations,
Including Oversight," Washington, D.C., May 21, 1993, p. 10.
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