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University of Iowa College of Law




Modern accounts of the national security state tend toward one of two opposing views of bureaucratic tensions within it: At one extreme, the executive branch bureaucracy is a shadowy “deep state,” unaccountable to the public or even to the elected President. On this account, bureaucratic obstacles to the President’s agenda are inherently suspect, even dangerous. At the other end, bureaucratic resistance to the President represents a necessary benevolent constraint on an otherwise imperial executive, the modern incarnation of the separation of powers, as the traditional checks on the President of the courts and Congress have fallen down on the job. These “deep state” and “benevolent constraints” approaches to bureaucratic behavior lead, respectively, to fear of or over-reliance on bureaucratic resistance, which I define here broadly as action or inaction within the executive branch that hinders executive movement. Fear of bureaucratic resistance results in an over-erosion of internal checks on the President. Alternatively, over-reliance on these internal checks may result in complacency, and an abdication of responsibility from the traditional external checks of Congress and the courts. Both approaches result in an insufficiently constrained President.

This Article seeks to navigate the tension between these approaches in order to craft a more realistic account of bureaucratic resistance, divorced from substantive views about the policies or President at hand. This account suggests that critics of the bureaucracy under-estimate the extent to which bureaucrats wield formal authority well-tethered to politically accountable sources. But both critics and champions of bureaucratic resistance over-estimate the extent to which bureaucrats exercise functional power free from practical constraint. Ultimately, the bureaucracy is neither all-powerful nor unaccountable. While it plays an essential – and endangered – role in the modern separation of powers, it is neither the threat that some fear, nor the holistic cure to a President who is.

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