What are the existing checks on the exercise of bureaucratic power?
Having spent over 20 years experiencing the frustrations involved in overseeing federal agencies and attempting to facilitate the enforcement of federal statutes, this educator can attest to the difficulties of dealing with entrenched bureaucrats who oppose those statutes or whoever the occupant of the White House. One of the checks inherent in the Constitutionally-established system of “checks and balances” is the ability of the president to nominate individuals to the top positions of each federal agency, not only the secretaries, but the deputy and assistant secretaries as well. On the opposing side is the authority vested in the Senate by the Constitution to “advise and consent” on and to those nominations (Article II, Section II), and the power of the Congress to specify in law those appointments that require Senate confirmation:
“He (the president) shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments. [Emphasis added]
The power of Congress to essentially micromanage Executive Branch agencies of the federal government is substantial, and most of the time effective. It is not, however, without its weaknesses. Both the president and Congress must confront the daily challenges of permanent members of the Civil Service who perform much of the functions of each agency. Just as the president can slow-roll congressional mandates by refusing to spend appropriated funds and can delay the implementation of laws through deliberately-induced bureaucratic maneuvers, so can that permanent federal bureaucracy, the Civil Service, influence the implementation of statutes and regulations through willful neglect. It would surprise many Americans how problematic are the challenges of bureaucratically-imposed delays in the implementation of legal requirements. Senior level bureaucrats, those in the Senior Executive Service (the highest ranking Civil Service officials whose tenures are contingent upon their own preferences and who can fill important agency positions through manipulation of the federal hiring process) are very powerful and beholden to no one. They are the “hidden government” about which one hears so much these days, but whose experience and expertise is also vital to the efficient functioning of the government.
It is incumbent upon any chief executive to impose his or her control over subordinate agencies. That is nominally done through appointments of deputy, assistant, and deputy assistant-level officials, the last category being exempt from the congressional role of advice and consent. That, however, is often easier said than done.
The bureaucracy includes federal agencies that implement public policy. The bureaucracy includes the 15 cabinet positions (such as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Labor, etc.), independent government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), government regulatory agencies such as the Federal Reserve, and government agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service. Most of these agencies are controlled by the executive branch, though some (such as the Library of Congress) are controlled by the Congress. Technically, all federal agencies serve under the President and are subordinate to him or her.
The Congress can exercise checks on the bureaucracy by carrying out monitoring and review of the bureaucracy through its implied powers, given in the Constitution. For example, the Congress can vote to change or regulate an agency, as it did in the 1980s over the EPA. Congressional oversight is intended to protect the public from poor management or waste, make sure agencies are running efficiently, and protect people's rights. Congress monitors the executive branch through its Government Accountability Office (GAO). In addition, when a President nominates cabinet members, they must be confirmed by the Senate with a simple majority. In very rare cases, the Congress can impeach cabinet members.
The Supreme Court can also declare regulations by specific agencies unconstitutional or take legal actions against bureaucratic agencies. For example, the Supreme Court recently (in 2016) blocked the EPA's Clean Power Plan intended to limit greenhouse gases until courts could review the law after 29 states brought a lawsuit against it.
The main checks on the bureaucracy come from the elected parts of government. Specifically, both the Congress and the president have ways to check the exercise of bureaucratic power.
The president can check the bureaucracies by appointing high level bureaucrats. These appointees are supposed to control the bureaucrats below them and keep them from exercising too much power. At the same time, the president makes the departments' budget requests. The president can stop requesting money for agencies and programs he does not like. This prospect keeps bureaucrats from just doing whatever they want.
The Congress has the power of oversight over bureaucracies and, most importantly, the power of the purse. If the Congress does not like what an agency is doing, it can call bureaucrats before hearings and scold them. The bureaucrats need to pay attention to what Congress says because Congress is the body that determines how much money each agency actually gets. Congress can also change the laws under which the agencies work. This is another check on the bureaucracy because Congress can make new laws affecting agencies that act in ways Congress does not like.
In these ways, the elected parts of government have a lot of control over the bureaucracies. When bureaucrats exercise "too much" power it is because the elected bodies allow them to do so.