Agency design, the mass media, and the blame for agency scandals.

Author:Ruder, Alex I.

Government agencies are responsible for the regulation and enforcement of laws that affect nearly every aspect of society. Their responsibilities range from the implementation of major health care and financial reform to the criminal enforcement of antitrust laws and the collection of taxes. Yet democratic institutions rarely provide a direct electoral check on bureaucrats. Political accountability of agencies thus requires that voters credit or blame elected officials with formal authority over those agencies.

The process by which voters learn which elected officials are responsible for an agency is complicated by institutional structures that feature multiple political principals, layers of bureaucracy, and complicated decision-making procedures often hidden from public view. A large body of research has thus focused on institutional design features that enhance the clarity of responsibility for agency actions (e.g., Kagan 2001). However, even with this research, we know little about how these features moderate voter attribution of blame. Are responsibility attributions for agency actions influenced by the institutional clarity of responsibility?

Proper allocation of blame and credit is necessary for democratic governance. Voters learn who is responsible for an action, form judgments about their performance in office, and then vote according to those judgments (Fiorina 1981; Key 1966). Concerns about the proper allocation of blame motivates many scholars to advocate for more presidential control over agencies. However, in order for increased presidential formal authority to enhance political accountability, voters must actually know that the president wields that authority.

How do voters learn about the complex institutional details concerning government agencies? As scholars have argued in the context of legislative institutions, voters learn about the institutional context through the mass media (Rudolph 2003). Unlike lawmaking, which has tallied roll-call votes and often a formal signing statement given by the president, most agency policy making occurs in a black box (Kagan 2001). Citizens, without media coverage, are unlikely to know which elected officials or bureaucrats are responsible for agency policy making or performance.

The informational role of the media has been shown to enable accountability by increasing voter knowledge of elected officials, which, in turn, creates incentives for those officials to be more responsive to their constituents (Prat and Stromberg 2011; Snyder and Stromberg 2010). In American politics, mass media provides voters with much information about political institutions and officials such as congressional actions (Arnold 2004) and the president's public agenda (Barabas 2008). The media also serves Congress and voters as a crucial watchdog over the actions of government agencies (Rosen 1998).

One challenge facing observational studies seeking to identify the influence of agency institutional context on responsibility attributions is controlling and measuring the information that voters encounter in the news. In this article, I use a survey experiment to identify the effect of agency design information on attributions of responsibility for an agency scandal. The survey experiment allows me to manipulate the information that respondents receive about agency design, while holding constant other potentially confounding details about the agency.

In the experiment, respondents read a real newspaper article about an agency scandal. Scandals provide an opportunity to study one of mass media's most important functions--revealing government malfeasance to citizens. Officials themselves are unlikely to provide information to the public about misdoings in government. Absent these disclosures of wrongdoing, the mass media is the public's only source of information concerning officials who are not representing their interests (Snyder and Puglisi 2011). Thus, out of all types of media coverage, coverage of agency scandals is arguably the most important place to convey information about political control of the bureaucracy. In addition, using news coverage allows me to manipulate an information source that is readily available to the public and is a primary source to voters about agency actions and institutional context.

In one experimental condition, I include agency-design information--the institutional context--that explains how the agency is structured to allow greater presidential influence over its operations. I provide respondents with agency-design details widely promoted by scholars as enhancing presidential control: presidential appointments and removal of agency leadership, the agency's location in the president's cabinet, and centralized regulatory review by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The second experimental condition presents the same newspaper article but with no information on agency design.

I find that informing respondents about agency-design features that enhance presidential control significantly increases attributions of responsibility to the president. This result is consistent with presidential control theorists who argue that increasing presidential formal authority over agencies enhances clarity of responsibility for voters.

Coverage of scandals, however, is only one part of the media's role informing voters about public affairs. Simple media attention to the day-to-day activities of regulatory agencies enhances accountability by providing voters with crucial information about the numerous ways that agency activity influences them and society. To assess mass media attention to federal agencies, I investigate how much opportunity voters have to learn about agencies through the news. I collect over 150,000 newspaper articles about a large sample of U.S. federal agencies and examine how coverage varies by agency, agency-design features, and regulatory activity. I match news coverage to data about agency-design characteristics from Lewis's work (2003, 2008) and regulatory review activity from the OMB. The analysis presents a mixed assessment of how well the news enables accountability of federal agencies. I demonstrate a high degree of heterogeneity across agencies in both the attention they receive in the news and the frequency with which journalists mention the president along with the agency. Some agencies with vast regulatory powers--such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)--receive relatively little coverage that mentions the president, despite the president's significant powers over that agency.

The article is organized into the following sections. The first section reviews the institutional context of government agencies, paying particular attention to design features that increase the president's formal authority over agencies. The second section describes the theoretical motivation and hypothesis. The third section presents the experimental design and results. The fourth section places the experimental results in a broader context of press coverage of government agencies. The fifth section concludes.

The Institutional Context: Agency Design

When creating agencies, elected officials balance political control with agency performance (Bawn 1995; Huber and McCarty 2004). The fundamental trade-off is that more political influence and control--through appointees rather than experts--reduce the autonomy of agencies to pursue what expert bureaucrats consider good public policy.

A second consideration is how much authority the president wields over an agency relative to Congress and the agency bureaucrats (Moe and Wilson 1994; Volden 2002). Theorists suggest that Congress resists presidential control of agencies when the president is ideologically opposed to Congress. Other works suggest that congressional control obscures responsibility for agency actions (e.g., Lowi 1979) and that greater presidential control enhances clarity of responsibility and greater political accountability (Kagan 2001).

Battles over agency structure can lead to a variety of complex agency structures, but scholars simplify the empirical analysis of agency design by focusing on four broad categories of institutional design. Each category is defined by a set of institutional features that enhances or limits presidential control over the agency. (1) In Table 1, I list the principal agency types identified by Lewis (2003, 2008), along with their design characteristics and examples of agencies.

These broad categories, of course, mask significant within-type heterogeneity. However, given their prominence in the literature, they provide a useful starting point to analyze differences in coverage. Political battles over agency design often focus on these broad categories. For example, congressional Republicans have continued to challenge the powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and call for a change in leadership structure from a single agency director to a bipartisan regulatory commission (McCoy 2013). Another example involves the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where critics, angered by perceived politicization of the agency, called for FEMA to be removed from the president's cabinet and made into an independent agency (Cilluffo et al. 2009). Agencies located within the Executive Office of the President and the president's cabinet feature the highest levels of presidential control. For cabinet departments such as Justice and Homeland Security, the president has significant control over budgets, personnel, and policy through regulatory review. Power over cabinet departments extends to agencies that belong within the cabinet departments. This subcabinet level includes agencies such as the FDA and FEMA.

The president also has these powers over executive agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In terms of political insulation, executive agencies are not substantially different than cabinet-level agencies. The...

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