Lesson Plan: The Role of Bureaucracy in Policy-Making

Rule-Making by Federal Agencies

Professor Cornelius Kerwin speaks about the role of federal agencies in making rules to implement federal law.


Executive agencies and regulatory commissions have vast policy-making power, yet they are an unelected part of the federal government. This lesson examines bureaucratic rule-making in four agencies (EPA, IRS, FCC and Department of Education). The lesson also focuses on how other branches of the federal government can check this power through Congressional oversight and judicial review.


  • STEP 1.

    Assign background reading from textbook or other appropriate source on the composition and power of the bureaucracy.

  • STEP 2.

    At the beginning of class, have students view the following two Bureaucracy Overview C-SPAN video clips and answer the associated questions.

  • VIDEO CLIP: Rule Making by Federal Agencies (1:54)


    • Why did the Founding Fathers vest the legislative (law-making) power in Congress through Article I of the Constitution? What were they worried about?

    • Why are laws as written by Congress not sufficiently useful? What role can federal agencies play
  • VIDEO CLIP: Bureaucratic Regulations and Congressional Oversight (2:33)


    • Which Obama legislative initiatives are criticized as burdensome on business?

    • What are the historic roots of today's regulatory regime?

    • How has Congress delegated increasing authority to bureaucratic agencies?

    • How does this benefit members of Congress?

    • What is one proposed solution to give Congress more control over administrative regulations?
  • STEP 3.

    As a class, discuss the video clips in the context of how public policy is made. Once Congress passes a law, why is there a need for bureaucratic agencies to become involved?

    Ask students to explain the concept of "bureaucratic discretion" (unelected officials make choices about how to implement laws).

    Brainstorm: What is the source of power of unelected bureaucrats in a democracy?

    Students should come up with a variety of factors: the large and sometimes unmanageable size; specialized expertise in complex matters; tenure protections for civil service; independence of regulatory commissions where commissioners are appointed for set term and cannot be fired before the expiration of the term.

  • STEP 4.

    Case Study. Form small groups and assign each a case study of one of the following topics (or other approved by teacher) about regulations issued by an executive agency or commission – either proposed or final-- to implement a law passed by Congress.

    Students should pick a video clip (see below) on their topic and then do independent research beyond the information provided in the clip in order to answer the following questions. Groups can then make an oral presentation to class on their findings.

    VIDEO CLIP: I.R.S.: Health Care Reform (2:37)

    VIDEO CLIP: Dept. of Education: Every Student Succeeds Act (2:57)

    VIDEO CLIP: F.C.C.: Net Neutrality Rules (3:36)

    VIDEO CLIP: EPA's Repeal of Obama-Era Clean Power Plan (4:05)

    Answer the following questions based on the selected video and your additional research:

    • Summarize the C-SPAN video:
    • Speaker:
    • Content:
    • Describe the regulations at issue.
    • What law did these regulations stem from?
    • When was it passed and why? Is there controversy about these regulations? Describe.
    • Is there an issue of bureaucratic discretion being exceeded by the agency/commission?
    • Has Congress taken measures to ensure that the agency follows legislative intent in its regulations?
    • Has any federal court reviewed the regulations? If so, what was its conclusion?

    Other checks on bureaucracy by Congress.

    Create an infographic, piktochart or similar graphical representation on the ways Congress can check the power of the bureaucracy. This should include the oversight function (focused on in this lesson) as well as other methods.

    Student ideas may include:

    • "power of the purse", i.e., Congressional power to increase/decrease agency budgets; shift spending; punish/reward agencies; kill a program.

    • rejecting high-level Presidential appointments to head agency or serve on a commission. (Ensure that students understand that the vast majority of federal workers are not appointed by the President and have civil service protections).


  • Bureaucracy
  • Department Of Education
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Executive Agencies
  • Federal Communications Commission
  • Federal Government
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • Public Policy
  • Regulatory Commissions


Bureaucracy & Regulation


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