Just How Big Is the Government?

The answer is . . . no one really knows. At least the government can’t tell you.

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Background: In most of my classes I will either show the picture nearby of federal agency acronyms (remember that none of these are cabinet departments spelled out in the Constitution), or start writing them one-by-one on the blackboard while rattling off their name and purpose. If I show the slide I’ll see how many agencies students can identify from their acronym (usually not very many, and I’ve forgotten some of these myself), but if I recite them seriatim, after a few minutes students get the point: the government is massive, and largely beyond the direct—or even indirect—control of voters. (Recall Obama saying that he couldn’t control the “independent” National Labor Relations Board when it tried to stop Boeing from opening a plant in South Carolina. No reporter thought to follow up: “Mr. President, just who does control the NLRB if it’s not you?”)

Incidentally, the ICC and CAB set off at the bottom stand for the only two significant federal agencies abolished in our lifetime: the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Civil Aeronautics Board. And students often don’t believe it when I tell them about the ICC’s old “backhaul” regulations, or how the CAB refused to grant a single application for a new entrant into the interstate airline cartel for a 20 year period.

Anyway, it seems even the federal government itself has lost count of the total number of federal agencies.  Clyde Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute reports:

Quoting federal officials, the Competitive Enterprise Institute said the number given ranges from a mere 60 to a whopping 430.

In fact, Clyde Wayne Crews, vice president of policy for CEI, found this gem of a quote inside the Administrative Conference of the United States source book. It lists 115 agencies in the appendix but adds: “[T]here is no authoritative list of government agencies.”

Digging through other counts offered by federal officials, he found an online Federal Register Index of 257.

United States Government Manual lists 316.

Then there was a 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing during which a senator listed over 430 departments, agencies and sub-agencies.

“As bureaucracy sprawls, nobody can say with complete authority exactly how many federal agencies exist,” blogged Crews on the CEI site.

So the question is: why did Rick Perry stop at just three targets for abolition back in 2012?