The Genesis of Independent Agencies

Patrick M. Corrigan & Richard L. Revesz

This Article sheds light on significant doctrinal and policy issues that are central to the proper understanding of the administrative state. It grapples with a core question of administrative law: When are agencies established with features that insulate them from direct presidential control? Because of its constitutional significance, the legal literature focuses on removal protection for agency heads, and posits that agencies are more likely to be accorded such protection when the presidency and at least one of the chambers of Congress are controlled by different parties. The empirical support for this claim comes from a single political science study, which suffers from significant design flaws and has been widely misinterpreted. In fact, it shows that under almost all plausible scenarios Congress is less likely to vest agencies with indicia of independence under divided government.

To properly study the factors that affect the probability that agencies will be accorded indicia of independence we constructed and analyzed a new dataset. Three principal variables have a statistically significant impact: the approval rating of the President, the size of the Senate majority, and the alignment of the political party of the Senate majority and the President. The latter two variables had never been tested prior to our study. We find that Congress is less likely to establish agencies with indicia of independence when the President is popular. Moreover, when the Senate majority is not aligned with the President, an increase in the majority makes it more likely that Congress will establish an agency with indicia of independence. And, for a given size of Senate majority, alignment with the President makes it more likely that Congress will establish an agency with indicia of independence. Changes in the composition of the House do not produce comparable effects, suggesting that the Senate’s filibuster rule or the Senate’s role in confirming presidential appointees might play a role in this regard. Noting that the empirical results explain relatively little of the variation observed in the dataset related to when Congress establishes agencies with indicia of independence, this Article also explores the limitations of the quantitative empirical findings and the benefits of performing detailed case studies. 


This article appears in the June 2017 Issue: Volume 92, Number 3