Creating Quality Leadership and Management

Recommendations and Actions

QUAL04: Improve Legislative-Executive Branch Relationship


In a landmark 1992 study, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) stated:

The relationship between Congress and the executive branch lies at the heart of the successes and failures of the U.S. Government. Neither branch acts alone at any stage of the policy process. But the view is widely expressed that the congressional-executive relationship and the institutional capabilities of both branches are in trouble--that the national performance has suffered as a result. The sense of frustration and distrust in both branches and among the public is very real and very high.(1)

The NAPA study, testimony before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, and other recent studies all highlight problems of gridlock, distrust, and a lack of interest in management- related issues. The studies all point to the need for both branches to adjust.(2)

Gridlock has been a major theme in American national politics for the past few years. Both voters and public officials have expressed frustration with a system that has become increasingly bogged down in partisan and interbranch squabbles--and sometimes competition between the two houses of Congress.

Some observers have attributed the problem to a dozen years of divided government. But the problem is deeper than that; it can be seen in the institutional structures. For example, multiple congressional committees claim jurisdiction over an issue and some executive branch agency heads find themselves repeatedly called before committees to repeat the same thing over and over.

Distrust stems from poor communication, and often executive branch agencies pay a heavy price. Some call it "micromanagement," but there is often blame enough for both sides. For example, in 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was slow and unfocused in the implementation of the 1976 Resource and Recovery Act and ignored important technological information. As a result, Congress specified, in statute, deadlines and very specific levels of environmental protection. The initial result of these actions was positive--EPA met the deadlines. However, the deadlines were blamed for thwarting the development of an adequate, cost-effective implementation framework.(3)

Another example of distrust is the number of congressionally mandated reports. The are nearly 5,000 congressionally mandated reports; of these, more than 400 are for the Defense Department alone.

Part of the problem also lies with a long-standing lack of interest in long-term management issues. As one Congressional Research Service analyst put it, Congress and the Executive Branch have adopted the "fire alarm" approach--managing in an ad hoc, reactive, and narrowly focused way--in contrast to the "police patrol" approach--involving preventive, systematic oversight.(4)

Congress often sees the executive branch as neglecting the management function, which leads to its involvement. This is especially evident when the public media identifies "horror stories."

Managing to exceptions and anomalies identified by the media is expensive. The costs of a system intolerant to acceptable margins of error, or without a process to appropriately respond, far outweigh the benefits to the public. Government's current tendency is to react to bad press by enacting a new law or regulation to show the American public that it is responsive. It is this approach that has led to 889 procurement laws governing Pentagon purchases. This approach costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually because of the extra staff and higher costs contractors have to charge to comply with federal requirements--with little benefit.

Need for Change

The public has become increasingly dissatisfied and distrustful of government. The public feels 48 cents of every tax dollar is wasted, and only 20 percent of Americans believe the federal government does the right thing most of the time. Much of this stems from the perception of gridlock the public sees between Congress and the executive branch--and the public's frustration over its inability to hold either accountable.

Also, many other NPR recommendations that are targeted to improving the long-term management environment--reducing congressionally mandated reports, biennial budgeting, developing performance measures, and streamlining the procurement and civil service systems- -are dependent on improving comity and trust between Congress and the executive branch. As a result, the need for improvement is imperative.

It is essential that the legislative and executive branches engage in developing a partnership for the future--a partnership that preserves constitutional separations of power and ensures accountability for achieving results.


Establish a bipartisan, bicameral workgroup, including executive and legislative branch representatives, to serve as a forum for identifying and resolving issues of mutual concern. (2)

A bridging or linking mechanism is needed to provide continuing attention to legislative-executive relations. It could be patterned after the Administrative Conference of the United States or the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. It could serve as a forum to:

Create effective oversight processes in Congress by, for example, clarifying which committees have oversight responsibilities for specific agencies;

Develop a system to coordinate executive officials' testimony before congressional committees;

Establish regular staff working groups to facilitate interbranch communications during policy development and implementation;

Encourage committees and agencies to develop systematic, regular, and comprehensive oversight of programs and policies;

Orient oversight hearings away from a preoccupation with the use of inputs and control for a constructive focus that creates an emphasis on outcomes and capacity building in executive agencies;

Sponsor staff exchange programs and forums; and

Identify opportunities to reduce congressionally mandated reports and facilitate the sharing of executive branch information.

This forum should periodically report its agenda and progress to both the President and bipartisan congressional leaders.

Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports

Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting, BGT02: Effectively Implement the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.

Streamlining Management Control, SMC06: Reduce the Burden of Congressionally Mandated Reports.

Improving Regulatory Systems, REG09: Improve Agency and Congressional Relationships.


1. See National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), Beyond Distrust: Building Bridges Between Congress and the Executive (Washington, D.C., January 1992).

2. See testimony and working papers provided to the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, including: American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution, Renewing Congress, A Second Report (Washington, D.C., 1993); Council for Excellence in Government, A Congressional Oversight Process That Leads to Better Legislation and Higher Executive Branch Performance (Washington, D.C., June 23, 1993); Center for Strategic and International Studies, Congressional Oversight of National Security: A Mandate for Change (Washington, D.C., 1992).

3. See NAPA.

4. Kaiser, Frederick M., Congressional Research Service Memorandum to the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, "Background and Issues in Reforming and Restructuring Legislative-Executive Relations, Including Oversight," Washington, D.C., May 21, 1993, p. 10.

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