How Many Zombie Agencies Does Government Need?

How many federal agencies do we pay for?  I bet you think, as I once did, that a quick internet search would tell.  But researching for an essay a couple of years ago, I found numbers varying from 78 to 158, and websites saying the exact number was impossible to determine. 

Looking at the website recently, I discovered a tab for Federal Agencies A to Z (actually there are none past W).  Scrolling around the list for two days, subtracting duplicate listings, like Useless Policy, Office of and Office of Useless Policy, I counted 456 (and a few more as I checked some links while drafting this essay). 

The large number of agencies was my first, but not my only surprise.  Each agency’s listing had a field for government branch, mostly filled with Executive, some Legislative, some Judicial.  But sometimes that field contained: Independent, Quasi, or None.  How can we have parts of government that are not part of a branch of our government?

It amused me that some agency names made it easy to guess when they were created.  Delinquency was a focus in the 1930s; nuclear threats, 1950s; civil rights, 1960s; cyberterrorism, after 2001.

This just started with to know how many federal agencies we have.  But discovering there are agencies decades past their freshness date, begs to be explored. This essay is a just cursory view.

Let’s start with Millennium Challenge Corporation.  Interestingly, my guess that the year it was created began with “19” was incorrect.  Congress set it up in 2004. MCC’s vapid catchphrase is: “reducing poverty through growth.”  This agency gives monetary aid to countries committed to “…good governance, economic freedom and investing in their citizens.”  A country of that description is likely to be prosperous.  There are other examples of agencies with the same mission: USAID, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, State Department, Africa Development Foundation, Foreign Agricultural Service, International Development Finance Corp, International Growth, Energy & the Environment, International Trade Administration, International Trade Commission, Open World Leadership Center, Peace Corps.  A substantial worldwide decline in poverty had been in progress for about a decade before MCC was founded.

Next, let’s explore the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.  It was created in 1956, as the Council on Youth Fitness, to address poor fitness among young Americans.  Somehow, sixty-six years of press releases naming new directors, adding new council members, announcing the council’s (several) new names, free publications, adding senior fitness to the mission, and giving a few hundred schoolchildren awards each year have been monumentally ineffective at addressing Americans’ fitness.

If we didn’t have the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, we’d still have plenty of agencies equipped to fail this task, including the Department of Education, Food & Nutrition Service, Department of Health & Human Services, Health Resources & Services Administration, National Health Information Center, National Institutes of Health, Food & Nutrition Service, Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion.

Just the name The Women’s Bureau has an air of bygone progressive policies and drop waist dresses, which makes sense as the name hasn’t changed since the agency formed in 1920.  Established by the Bureau of Labor to promote the interests of wage-earning women (then 20% of the workforce), and “…formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.”  Once the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, one would think the Women’s Bureau could be respectably retired with 43 years’ service. 

Instead, this agency has had another 58 years, and counting, of mission creep (strangely never creeping to the failed Equal Rights Amendment, unmentioned on the Women’s Bureau webpage). 

  • In the 1960s, old laws protecting working women were reexamined for negative effects on opportunity. 
  • In the 1970s, focus shifted to discrimination against women and minorities, and spreading bureau expertise abroad.
  • During the 1980s, the bureau pushed for employer-paid childcare and onsite daycare. 
  • The 1990s focus was on nontraditional employment for women, fair pay (like 1963 never happened) and the effects of domestic violence on the workplace. 

After 2000, the agency turned to pushing STEM education and careers for girls, higher pay and economic security for women, seeking out disenfranchised women, paid family leave, and workplace segregation.  More recently, the bureau’s priorities have been sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the workplace, and addressing pay inequity (like 1963 never happened). 

Its website says, “The Women’s Bureau is the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women in the public policy process.”  (There is no federal agency that represents the needs of stay-at-home mothers and housewives, which is probably for the best.)  With legislation and agencies addressing equality of pay and worker treatment, and 47% of the current workforce being women, workplace issues could be handled by agencies including the Civil Rights Divisions of the Education Department, DOJ and/or HHS, Commission on Civil Rights, Wage & Hours Division, or Equal Employment Opportunity Council.

It’s been decades since the breakup of the Soviet Union.  But I would be ok with keeping Radio Free Europe, if it redirected its pro-freedom, anti-censorship, anti-communist, pro-American messages toward the mainstream media, Congress and the White House.

Here’s a fact that makes these zombie agencies more discouraging.  Until the middle of the 19th century, corporations in America had charters for only a limited number of years, rarely as long as 50, and often less.  The corporation’s principals had to show how they planned to pay their investors, and the proposed project’s benefit to the community allowing the corporation to be created. 

Unfortunately, the feds’ A to Z list still has room for more zombie agencies to form and feed at our expense. There are no zombie hunters in the federal universe.

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