Independent Executive Agencies of US Government

A FEMA agent helping a female victim of Hurricane Sandy
FEMA Agent Assists Hurricane Sandy Victim. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Independent executive agencies of the U.S. federal government are those that, while technically part of the executive branch, are self-governed and not directly controlled by the President of the United States. Among other duties, these independent agencies and commissions are responsible for the vitally important federal rulemaking process.

While independent agencies do not answer directly to the president, their department heads are appointed by the president, with the approval of the Senate.

However, unlike the department heads of executive branch agencies, such as those making up the president’s Cabinet, who can be removed simply because of their political party affiliation, heads of independent executive agencies may be removed only in cases of poor performance or unethical activities. In addition, the organizational structure of the independent executive agencies allows them to create their own rules and performance standards, deal with conflicts, and discipline employees who violate agency regulations.    

Creation of Independent Executive Agencies

For the first 73 years of its history, the young American republic operated with only four government agencies: the Departments of War, State, Navy, Treasury, and the Office of the Attorney General.

As more territories gained statehood and the nation’s population grew, the people’s demand for more services and protections from the government grew as well.

Facing these new government responsibilities Congress created the Department of the Interior in 1849, the Department of Justice in 1870, and the Post Office Department (now the US Postal Service) in 1872.

The end of the Civil War in 1865 ushered in a tremendous growth of business and industry in America.

Seeing a need to ensure fair and ethical competition and control fees, Congress began creating independent economic regulatory agencies or “commissions.” The first of these, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), was created in 1887 to regulate the railroad (and later the trucking) industries to ensure fair rates and competition and to prevent rate discrimination. Farmers and merchants had complained to lawmakers that railroads were charging them exorbitant fees to carry their goods to market. 

Congress eventually abolished the ICC in 1995, dividing its powers and duties among new, more tightly defined commissions. Modern independent regulatory commissions patterned after the ICC include the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Independent Executive Agencies Today

Today, the independent executive regulatory agencies and commissions are responsible for creating the many federal regulations intended to enforce the laws passed by Congress. For example, the Federal Trade Commission creates regulations to implement and enforce a wide variety of consumer protection laws such as the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, the Truth in Lending Act, and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Most independent regulatory agencies have the authority to conduct investigations, impose fines or other civil penalties, and otherwise, limit the activities of parties proven to be in violation of federal regulations. For example, the Federal Trade Commission often halts deceptive advertising practices and forces business to issue refunds to consumers.

Their general independence from politically motivated interference or influence gives the regulatory agencies the flexibility to respond rapidly to complex cases of abusive activities.

What Makes the Independent Executive Agencies Different?

The independent agencies differ from the other executive branch departments and agencies mainly in their makeup, function, and ​the degree to which they are controlled by the president.

Unlike most executive branch agencies which are overseen by a single secretary, administrator, or director appointed by the president, the independent agencies are usually controlled by a commission or board made up of from five to seven people who share power equally.

While the commission or board members are appointed by the president, with the approval of the Senate, they typically serve staggered terms, often lasting longer than a four-year presidential term. As a result, the same president will rarely get to appoint all of the commissioners of any given independent agency.

In addition, federal statutes limit the president’s authority to remove commissioners to cases of incapacity, neglect of duty, malfeasance, or “other good cause.” Commissioners of independent agencies cannot be removed based simply on their political party affiliation. In fact, most independent agencies are required by law to have ​a bipartisan membership of their commissions or boards, thus preventing the president from filling vacancies exclusively with members of their own political party. In contrast, the president has the power remove the individual secretaries, administrators, or directors of the regular executive agencies at will and without showing cause.

Under Article 1, Section 6, Clause 2 of the Constitution, members of Congress cannot serve on the commissions or boards of independent agencies during their terms in office.

Examples of Independent Executive Agencies

A few examples of hundreds of independent executive federal agencies not already mentioned include:

  • Federal Reserve Board of Governors
    Functions as the central bank of the United States. The Federal Reserve System (the “FED”) oversees the nation’s monetary and credit policy and works ensure the safety and stability of the nation’s banking and financial system.