greater responsiveness only increases the opportunities for concentrated interests to exert influence over the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. Perhaps ironically, it may be the case that only those regulatory agencies that are able to escape domination by politicians will be able to effectively pursue the goals that those same elected officials wrote into law back when the public was paying attention. Effectiveness, in short, may demand a significant degree of bureaucratic autonomy, rather than democratic control.
…Carpenter’s key insight is that bureaucrats themselves have the power not only to shirk or subvert their principals, but in some cases to guide or even dominate them. The canvas on which he explains how this is possible is the history of one of America’s most powerful agencies, the Food and Drug Administration.
Teles is reviewing a book by David Carpenter, in which the author argues that the FDA’s power stems from its reputation. Because the FDA is highly regarded, it can maintain its independence from Congress.
Teles sees that as a good thing. His model of politics is that there are fleeting demands for regulation, to which Congress responds by establishing an agency. However, once the spotlight is off and the actual regulatory process is underway, the more politically responsive the agency, the more likely it is that the agency will be manipulated by special interests. It is better for the agency to polish its reputation and sustain independent power.
In this model, what is it that limits an agency’s power?
In theory, the loss of reputation leads to a loss of power. When has this happened? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a terrible reputation, but it has at least as much responsibility as ever. Same with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently spilled chemicals into the Colorado River, and as far as I can tell it suffered no consequences.
Still, I think that it is fair to say that technocrats focus on their reputations. Bad publicity does attract Congressional attention, and perhaps that makes an agency less aggressive than it otherwise might be.
But reputation-protection, rent-seeking, can be costly. A place like the Fed selects for chairmen who write self-serving memoirs. The question is whether the focus on reputation leads to better behavior or mere image-polishing.
In the private sector, there is the same tension. Reputation can be earned, or it can be manipulated through public relations. But one hopes that the competitive process will eventually expose the manipulators and reward the good performers.