Control Avoision: Proactive Discretion in the Federal Bureaucracy



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This dissertation explores the logic of strategic discretion in the US federal bureaucracy. While federal agencies possess substantial discretionary powers, they do not always utilize them to their fullest extent. I refer to the strategic use of discretionary powers in anticipation of potential political risks as proactive discretion. Agencies in the model anticipate and avoid potential political conflict by modulating their usage of discretion. To formalize this theory, I adopt an existing theoretical model of conditional Congressional control of the bureaucracy and make several modifications. Notably, I shift the perspective of the model. Whereas the original is concerned with the limits of Congressional control, this dissertation re-orients the framework to apply to strategic agency avoision of political control. In order to test this theory, I develop several original datasets revolving around federal agency activities. First, I construct a set of ideal-point estimates for federal agencies, utilizing a modified variant of an existing methodology. I link federal agencies to committees via Policy Agendas Project topics: agencies are assigned a vector of topic interest based on topic-coded documents and mapped to committees via topic-coded hearings. The resulting dataset produces weighted estimates of committee influence for each agency. In testing predictions derived from this model, I explore the domains of information collections, regulatory deadlines, and procedural optionality in the notice and comment rulemaking process. Each domain offers means of isolating instances of agency discretion: actions that are not mandated, but are undertaken (or not undertaken, in the case of deadlines). In each domain I construct an original dataset dealing with instances of agency discretion. These include: discretionary changes in information collections; non-compliance with regulatory deadlines; and explicit usage of procedural delaying tactics during the rule making process. Results of this project provide some indication that agencies actively seek to avoid political conflicts and imply that, by doing so, agencies may enhance their practical discretionary authority over time. These results have several implications for theories of ex-ante political control, as well as for the operation and effectiveness of legislative political control in practice.