Little tremors of Jimmy Carter were already being felt in Washington this spring, when the Federal Energy Administration came up for extension. Last year or the year before, the FEA, set up as a temporary agency but trying to stay alive past its June 30 expiration date, might have run the legislative gauntlet with no trouble at all. This year, challenges were mounted by people bearing the banner of anti-bureaucracy, and the agency was extended for only 18 months, less than half the time it had wanted. It was enough to embitter considerably the FEA’s own officials, who think they became a sacrificial lamb because it was their misfortune to be the only federal agency to come before Congress for renewal during the period of Carter’s ascendancy.

What’s more surprising than the heat put on the FEA this spring, however—there should, for other agencies, be a lot more of that to come—is how adroitly the FEA escaped it. Using a combination of advance entrenchment tactics and, later, effective responses to criticism, the FEA really made itself untouchable in a way that could serve as a model for other agencies threatened over the next four years. It may in fact be Carter, and not the other agencies, who should learn the tactics of bureaucratic survival—the chances are that most agencies know them too well already.

When Carter talks about cutting “1,900 federal agencies to 200 at most,” and about instituting “sunset laws” that place an expiration date on the lives of agencies, it’s unclear how well he understands the forces he’ll have to contend with in the process. If the FEA’s experience this spring and summer is any indication, the process of forcing agencies out of existence will be an extremely tricky one. The FEA drew on a series of deep-rooted, widely applicable first principles of entrenchment on which every imperiled agency is sure to rely.

The Standing Army Principle

Somewhere back in the mists of history, a military man had an inspiration that has since provided the justification for countless legions of bureaucrats. Like all great ideas, it was breathtakingly simple: instead of nations raising armies only when the need arises—in wartime—they should have standing armies always on the ready, just in case. So it is with the FEA, or any agency set up to deal with a sudden and extreme situation. The point is not to exist only when disaster actually strikes, but at any time when it might conceivably strike.

The FEA was created in rudimentary form in the late fall of 1973 to deal with the immediate exigencies of the Arab oil embargo; the idea then was that the embargo and the energy crisis were one and the same, and that the FEA would regulate oil and gas and promote conservation for a couple of years, until the crisis had passed. It was supposed to be a militia, in other words, and now, sure enough, it’s a standing army.

The principle by which it changed was energy independence, according to which the United States shouldn’t import any fuel at all and thereby be permanently immune to future embargoes. It’s a testament to how confused public issues can become that now virtually everyone in politics and government accepts energy independence as an article of faith, although it has a number of obvious disadvantages—pollution and strip mining from increased use of coal, safety hazards from a substantial rise in the number of nuclear plants, and higher oil and gas prices for consumers. Be that as it may, if you’re for energy independence it’s because you think there may be another Arab embargo. If that were out of the question, there would be no reason not to keep on importing oil.

Which is where the FEA comes in. Just as generals and admirals talk about arms races and first-strike capabilities… just in case… the FEA’s officials, particularly Frank G. Zarb, its administrator, are constantly warning Congress and the public of the imminence of another embargo. They can’t, of course, cite specific dates or speak in certainties, but within those limits they don’t leave much doubt. There is delicate phrasing involved in this; instead of saying there will be another embargo, Zarb says things like this: “We’ve had three embargo situations in the last 15 or 20 years, and there’s not much to suggest that there won’t be another.”

Even if you take Zarb at his word and expect another embargo, it’s possible to diverge from his all-out energy independence policy. The main issue is not whether there will be another embargo, but how long it will last, since its length will determine its effect on America. The last embargo lasted five months. We now have in reserve enough oil to last, if it is consumed at the rate we consume Arab oil, more than a year and a half. To be successful, then, a new embargo would have to last considerably longer than the last one.

The problem is not solely economic, but political as well. The Arab economy is badly hurt by any reductions in their shipments to us—the recession proved that—so it is in their interest to keep selling us oil at a fast clip. In other words, we are neither the only ones with a strong incentive to avoid another embargo nor the only ones who would want to keep an embargo that did start as short as possible. We rely on the Arabs, granted, but they rely on us too; there is a political calculus at work that stabilizes the situation. Arid as long as that balance is maintained it would seem to make sense for us to buy as much oil as we can from the Arabs now, instead of relying on increased (and exhaustable) domestic production, as the FEA would have us do. It’s important to see the FEA’s extension in this light, as based on an assumption that is (though you wouldn’t know it) highly disputable.

Zarb does a great deal of traveling, and almost everywhere he goes he talks about energy independence, our increasing oil imports, being at the mercy of OPEC, and so forth, no doubt leaving his audiences thinking, thank God for the FEA. More than that, though, he ties in energy independence to the grandest possible American themes. Consider this, from a Zarb speech in April:

“Just as in 1776, the United States is today undergoing broad, basic changes—and facing new, critical challenges. The challenges may be different today, yet in a very basic way, they are like those faced by the Founding Fathers of the republic.

“The challenges of 1976, like those two centuries earlier, concern our economic and political survival.”

Any thought of the FEA’s own institutional self-interest is swept away here by the agency’s closeness to America’s purpose, indeed the nation’s continued existence as a democracy. If its critics see it as the boy who cried wolf, the FEA sees itself as Paul Revere. in this context self-preservation does not appear to play a part at all; the FEA is full of people who simply believe in the importance of what they are doing. Zarb needed no prompting when he forthrightly told a Senate committee in April that no FEA official “will testify in favor of the status quo simply for the benefit of the status quo. Our interests are in developing the best possible energy capability to solve what we consider to be a terribly important problem. . . regardless of how it affects the current institutions in government.”

Of course, there’s more to becoming a standing army than just working out the ideology of it. It helps a great deal to be written into a law or a series of laws, so that whatever happens to your intellectual basis you’ll remain untouchable in practice. Granted, laws are hard to pass, but for the same reason they’re hard to change, and once Congress goes through all the effort of passing a major piece of legislation it’s likely to move on quickly to other matters and hardly ever reexamine its actions. The legislation creating an agency develops, through inertia, a life of its own, leaving the agency much safer than if it merely existed under the fickle auspices of an executive order.

Sunset laws containing ironclad expiration dates can wreak havoc on all that safety, but even then there is an out: get mentioned in other laws. The FEA had a death clause in the legislation that created it, but along the way to its deadline it picked up a number of long-lasting legislative responsibilities, because Congress kept passing energy laws that had nowhere but the FEA to go for administration. So while it was originally just supposed to get us through the Arab embargo, the FEA is now responsible for, among other things, the gradual de-control of oil prices, the even more gradual stockpiling of emergency oil reserves, production incentives, adjustment limitations, coal conversion programs, appliance labeling rules, and automobile efficiency standards. All this allows FEA officials, asked why they’re trying to stay alive, to shrug and point to all the programs Congress and President Ford have ordered them to carry out—programs that they mostly advocated in the first place, but that’s quibbling.

The Corps of Engineers Corollary

Once you have a standing army, you have to figure out something for it to do in peacetime. What the United States Army did was set up the Corps of Engineers that builds dams and bridges, administers flood relief, and takes on other tasks not directly related to fighting wars but wonderfully consuming of time. What the FEA has done over the years is turn its temporary problem into a permanent potential problem, and establish itself as the chief worrier about it. Thus a goodly portion of its tasks have to do with pushing energy independence, urging people to conserve, promoting the development of alternative energy sources, and so on—anything that could conceivably make us less vulnerable to another embargo. It has offices of solar and nuclear energy, of coal. and synthetic fuels. Even as a regulator, it established a system of rules and audits so complicated as to require the full-time attention of thousands of people in government and industry.

The crown jewel of the FEA’s several functions, however, is without a doubt the strategic storage reserve plan, designed to put the federal government in full control of one billion barrels of oil, just in case there is another embargo. In order to do this, the FEA will spend the next ten years buying the oil (carefully, so as not to upset the economy) and storing it in underground salt domes. The first 50 million barrels stored will cost about $800 million. If the whole thing sounds a little futuristic and impractical, well, they laughed at Cassandra too. The project should keep the FEA busy well into the foreseeable future, and taken together with its other promoting, regulating, and deregulating tasks, it makes abolition of the agency virtually impossible.

The Piece of the Action Policy

Once an agency, through assiduous application of the Standing Army Principle and the Corps of Engineers Corollary, has firmly established its purpose, it remains for it to establish itself institutionally in the federal bureaucracy. The way to accomplish this is through the exercise of a bureaucratic golden rule: if there’s anyone else who could be a permanent enemy, turn him into a friend by giving him a piece of your action. Thus has the FEA won the friendship of the rest of the American system: the President, Congress, other agen- cies, the press, and business. Like any standing army it has something—usually the glamor of being on the forefront of the critical energy issue, sometimes even spin-off jobs for reporters, bureaucrats or congressional staff—to offer every one, and in return it gets treated gently by people who could have done it considerable damage.

President Ford, for instance, is a strong believer in energy independence and a national energy policy. Why shouldn’t he be? The FEA helps him stay active and popular on the energy front by providing him with advice and implementing our energy policy—just as the standing army’s existence implies for the President a firm stand on defense. It’s no surprise that Ford proposed the extension of the FEA until 1979.

And that extension had little trouble in Congress, which points to another healthy relationship between the FEA and a potential adversary with a stake in the agency’s future. An agency with fewer scruples than the FEA has as its major way of establishing good will with Congress the regulatory favor–giving some kind of break to prominent constituents of key congressmen, or throwing a little business their way. But the FEA has a different kind of advantage: the popularity of the energy issue. If not many people really understand energy, everybody needs to have a position on it, and it’s good politics for a member of Congress to be able to tell his constituents that he’s doing something about energy.

To deal with its popularity on Capitol Hill, the FEA has a congressional relations staff of 46 people. They answer 600 phone calls and 145 letters a week. They check up on the energy-related legislation being proposed—about a tenth of all legislation these days. These statistics certainly testify to the FEA’s hard work; the congressional relations office is efficient, quick in answering its mail and phone calls, impressive in its accumulation of overtime hours. This is the kind of thing that keeps Congress happy.

It is not, however, a testament to Congress’s efficiency in dealing with energy. One of the great misconceptions about Washington is that since the government is so big, people in it don’t work hard. In fact, in some areas—new agencies, for instance—they work much harder than people outside government, but the utility of the work they do is what is doubtful. The FEA has testified before 96 congressional committees and subcommittees, for instance, for no better reason than that everybody in Congress wants a piece of the glamorous energy issue. For the same reason, the present Congress has held 628 energy-related hearings. The people at the FEA who are spending long and laborious hours answering mail, or scheduling committee testimony, are doing so only because there are people on the Hill working equally hard writing those letters and organizing those hearings. The FEA publishes six daily, two weekly, and one biweekly reports when Congress is in session, only because someone somewhere else is spending all his time reading them. The system makes everyone involved busy and happy, but it doesn’t make much difference to the national welfare.

Forceful Leadership

There’s also a higher level of dealing with Congress—meetings between high agency officials and prominent members at which the issues are discussed but good will is also fostered.

In June, for instance, when FEA extension was on the floor of the House and Senate, Zarb, between trips to Israel and Japan, spent an hour with the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the FEA; an hour with the five senators with whom he holds a monthly energy briefing; an hour with a member of the staff of the Senate committee overseeing the FEA; an hour with three other senators to discuss FEA extension, among other issues; shorter time with three congressmen individually; and so on. He also did a short television taping with one member of Congress that undoubtedly made the member look as if his forceful leadership were helping steer us through the energy crisis.

In general, beyond their frequent appearances at hearings, Zarb and the other high officials of the FEA keep up a steady pace of visits to the Hill. This year, some of the visits have been explicitly about extension and some about other issues, but all have had the effect of building friendly relations—particularly since those who get visited the most are often the FEA’s most prominent friends. By law, the agency can’t lobby for its own continued life, but the regular routine of two or three FEA visits a week to the Hill to discuss its extension (leaving aside other matters) accomplishes the same things lobbying would, even more artfully.

The House and Senate committees overseeing an agency are obviously of particular importance to it, but their friendship is usually easier to win than that of congressmen in general. The reason is that a committee and its agency often have a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other for continued survival. A congressional committee—or, if that can’t be gotten, a subcommittee, which is almost as good—has as much self-preservative instinct as a federal agency, since it gives all its members power and visibility and its chairman a whole new staff and set of offices.

Acumen and Hustling

The House committee that considered FEA extension was the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce; it came into existence in 1975 and would probably fade out if the FEA were abolished. So it’s not surprising that the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, and Zarb see eye to eye; if their politics are alike, so are their self-interests. During Dingell’s subcommittee hearings on the FEA extension, the atmosphere was hardly one of tough, skeptical inquiry. Dingell called Zarb “my good friend” and generally made no secret of his admiration, and he steered the questioning of more hostile members of the subcommittee so as to do minimal damage to the FEA’s cause. When grousing was done, it was done by Dingell and FEA officials in harmony and directed against the stingy Office of Management and Budget.

In the Senate, there was a different kind of conflict. The committee holding hearings on the FEA’s extension was Government Operations, which has no institutional stake in the FEA’s future. The problem was more specific.

It starts with a man named Charles Wallace, an oil-and-gas businessman who, depending on who is telling the story, has built himself a fortune either through brilliant financial acumen or through hustling the federal government out of a lot of money. In early 1975 Wallace approached the FEA about an oil refinery he wants to build in Tuskegee, Alabama. He wanted the FEA, through various regulatory machinations, to arrange the oil economy so that he would be subsidized by the big oil companies. His position was that he had the financing and the oil (expensive Venezuelan crude) for the refinery all lined up, and that he needed only certain dispensations from the FEA to get underway; he was giving the FEA the opportunity to help the small-business energy economy and open up new jobs. From the FEA’s standpoint, Wallace wanted a free ride. He asked for exceptions to non-existent rules, and guarantees the FEA couldn’t provide. He kept escalating his requests. He got one round of favors, and wanted another, and the FEA decided to give him a firm no.

There the matter rested until this spring, when Senators James Buckley of New York and John Sparkman and James Allen of Alabama, along with Rep. Bill Nichols of Alabama, lobbied the FEA on Wallace’s behalf. Allen, a member of the Senate committee that was holding hearings on FEA extension, inserted an amendment into the FEA extension legislation that would require the agency to “carry out a program that would assist the construction of new, grass roots refineries”—that is, its larger implications notwithstanding, giving Wallace what he wants. The FEA opposed the amendment.

What is wrong here is the temptation presented to the FEA: at a time when the agency was up for extension, some of the people in Congress responsible for extending it asked the agency to do something for them. In other, closer agency survival struggles, this kind of situation will undoubtedly come up, and the agencies involved might not be so noble about refusing requests that would bring them votes.

What Was Whose

Also worthy of attention is the delicate matter of getting along with other agencies, particularly apparently competing ones. The FEA had to face this problem in 1975, when Congress created the the Energy Research and Development Administration, a huge offshoot of the Atomic Energy Commission charged with figuring out and promoting ways for us to make more and import less energy. Since the FEA already had created a coal office, a nuclear office, a solar office, an office of energy research and development, and so on (plus things that conflict with long-established agencies, like a diplomacy-related office of international energy affairs), it was open to duplication-of-effort charges.

The first hearings on FEA extension in the Senate began on April 26; and four days later, on April 30, Zarb and the director of the Energy Research and Development Administration signed an official four-page “memorandum of understanding” that “formalizes the corresponding working relationship” between the two agencies. In other words, the two agencies drew up a treaty dernarking what was whose. Zarb described the difference between them as “the relationship that the marketing division of a corporation has with the research and engineering division.” As to the potential conflict with State, one FEA administrator told a House subcommittee, barely comprehensibly:

“Our relationship with State is perhaps one of service in some respect. It is one of coequal in others with respect to service. The State Department Office of Fuels and Energy within the Economic Bureau is a small group which establishes the broad framework of a negotiating strategy, perhaps, and overall policy objectives that include political as well as economic and more specifically energy within them… We provide, therefore, technical and energy specific backup on virtually all of the delegations.”

Obviously some of this staking out of territory is sensible and more than just power-grabbing; but it is just as obvious that an explanation could be dreamed up for practically any duplication of effort. FEA officials say that a cabinet-level department of energy would wipe out all overlapping, but it is at the same time hard to imagine that anyone in a federal energy-related job will be out on the street when the new agency is created. The point is that even if competing agencies are set up, it is in their long-range interest to iron out their differences on their own, rather than having them aired before a hostile committee.

An agency shouldn’t forget the press, either, because it can, particularly through its influence on Congress, be a powerful ally. Learning this lesson well has been part of the special genius of the FEA, and it has assiduously spread its energy message across the nation. Its public affairs office had at one time 225 employees (this in an agency of 3,500) and has since leveled off at 122, with a $3.5-million budget, It has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising and promotion of energy conservation (“Don’t Be Fuelish”) and energy independence. It created Energy Ant, an agency mascot for kids’ coloring books. It produced a series of “vulnerability” television ads that were so anti-Arab that they never appeared. It published a 24-page tabloid for teenagers, starring a character named Mod lecturing on energy, and spent $10,000 on an “energy conservation fashion show” at the Plaza Hotel in New York. It even mass-produced bumper stickers saying, “The Faster You Drive, the Richer They Get.”

Although part of the FEA’s message—that of lowered expectations and parsimony—is not in itself likely to make the agency popular, that message is always linked with dire prophecies of doom. The overall effect of the FEA’s publications is not only to make it a household acronym, but to create the impression that what it does is absolutely essential to America’s future. Once people think this, the role of members of Congress is easy. “It’s political,” says Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, who tried to abolish the FEA. “You go home to the district and somebody says, ‘What are you doing about the energy crisis?’ And you can say, ‘Well, I voted to extend the FEA.’ “

Not Terribly Bitter

Finally, a regulatory agency should of course stay on good terms with whomever it’s regulating; the regulated industry must have a lot of power and influence, or it wouldn’t have been regulated in the first place. It usually has a strong voice in the government. That’s certainly the case with the oil industry, which the FEA regulates, and the relationship between the agency and the industry is, unsurprisingly, not terribly bitter.

Granted, some oil companies, especially the small ones, have been complaining about the amount of paperwork and bureaucratic fine tuning that compliance with the FEA’s many regulations engenders. But at the same time, the FEA’s major philosophical underpinning, energy independence, is completely congenial to the big oil companies—one has only to listen to the companies’ commercials, or read their newspaper ads, to see that they paint the energy crisis in terms as dire as the FEA’s.

The reason for this harmony is the FEA’s policy of promoting domestic oil production as much as possible, and trying to lower American energy demand. The way to make people buy less gas is to make it more expensive, and the FEA wants to do that by taking away price controls on oil and letting prices drift up to their natural level. Obviously the oil companies would like to be able to raise their prices, so they are in full agreement with the FEA’s policies. The agency is both chief regulator of oil and chief advocate of deregulation, and it and the industry are partners in protecting us from the great threat to the freedom of the American people. If the FEA’s support of deregulation seems to be in conflict with its self-preservative instincts, its admirable use of the Corps of Engineers Corollary has gotten it almost completely out of that dilemma.

(It’s worth noting that the FEA has had one consistent institutional enemy—the Office of Management and Budget, whose self-interest runs almost exactly counter to the FEA’s and hence can’t be given a piece of the action. The OMB looks good when it cuts back, and particularly in a year when the President has been talking up his opposition to big government the pressures are on it not to spend. It has been suspicious of the FEA’s requests for budget increases, and—alone in the federal government—of the validity of the salt-dome theory of energy independence.)

The Silk Purse Syndrome

Even after the most careful sort of preparation, agencies have to be prepared to deal with attacks from anti-bureaucrats; when the attacks come, adept agencies can easily defuse them or even turn them around so as to strengthen their case for survival. It was practically inevitable that this sort of problem would come up for the FEA, since by the time it came up for renewal there was already a long litany of wasteful-bureaucracy complaints against it.

The FEA has the highest average salary of any federal agency ($19,026 a year). Its officials are big travelers. Its publicity operation is impressively large, its outside contracts generous. The agency has contracted out for things like the designing of an “executive development program” for its own staff, energy polls that said essentially the same things as Harris and Gallup, and a study on lighting conservation whose chief recommendation was “turning off lights when not in use.” It was ripe for attack.

Attacked it was, but the attackers focused almost exclusively on the FEA’s PR operation and ignored almost everything else. It was the 122 employees, the advertisements, and the Energy Ant program that most stuck in people’s minds. When newspaper articles critical of the FEA were written, when congressmen got tough in hearings, it was over the issue of the PR department. The FEA thus wisely responded to the criticism that it was a wasteful bureaucracy by cutting the PR staff from 122 to 70 people. The cut was somewhat illusory, since it will be a while before it takes effect and since half of the cut positions are just being moved to other parts of the agency. But by responding flexibly to the charges against it, the FEA was able to get out of a potential mess with only about 25 losses. Since it is asking Congress for 700 more people and a budget increase from $142 million to $440 million in 1977, the loss should not be terribly painful. The key factor in cutting back is not numbers or dollars, but strategy. (Similarly, the FEA more recently responded to criticism that it shouldn’t be both making policy and, through data-gathering, evaluating that policy, not by dropping or giving away one of those functions, but by announcing an organizational reshuffling under which the conflict would allegedly disappear.)

There were other charges, more serious, that could be made against the FEA, but they were even easier to defuse. In fact, the agency has drawn a great deal of political advantage from the general worsening, since its creation, of the very problems it was supposed to remedy. It was supposed to slow the rate of increase in energy consumption, which has in fact quickened. It was supposed to reduce our dependence on Arab oil, but it has increased. It was supposed to keep our oil reserves up, but they have dwindled.

All this is not to say that the FEA was not sincerely trying to remedy those problems, but its lack of success, which could be used as an argument for its abolition, is instead the chief reason for its continued existence. In presenting its case the agency points frequently and ominously to the statistics of its own shortcomings. One FEA official, called upon to state succinctly why the agency should stay alive in the absence of an embargo, said, “Because we are increasing our dependence on the OPEC nations for oil.” As the dependence increases, the FEA will become more and more necessary. This is the Central Paradox by which crisis- or problem-related agencies stay alive: they depend on a bad situation continuing to exist, and they are themselves the chief judge of how bad the situation really is. People outside of the agency, not being experts, can’t understand how bad things really are.

Public Interest and Self-Interest

Which gets back to the embargo and energy crisis; the possibility of one and the continuing existence of the other are what the FEA depends on for its survival. Just as the army, when threatened, might talk about shutting down bases, or an embattled mayor might talk about laying off firemen, the FEA talks about energy independence and threats to our great democratic tradition. Unlike the army or the mayor, though, the FEA by issuing dire warnings about foreign powers is only doing its job. Perhaps the chief block to its abolition, and the abolition of other federal agencies, is that by working in what they sincerely believe is the public interest, agencies are usually working in their own self-interest as well. They tend to inflate the importance of the problem they are trying to solve, as would anyone spending all his time studying one problem.

Given that situation, the typical federal agency is likely to be practically impossible to tamper with. If most agencies are like the FEA, Congress, at least on the subcommittee level, is likely to be beholden to them structurally if not through direct favors. The laws authorizing agencies to do things are likely to multiply, not go away. They are likely to agree with the executive branch, and to share the perceptions of private industry. For the typical agency, all its potential perils are defused in advance, and even if there is a serious threat to its existence, in the course of doing its job the agency has probably amassed data showing just how essential it is, and that information can be trotted out before the public. Making sunset laws work entails more than just imposing specific tasks and specific deadlines, since, as the FEA’s case graphically shows, those tasks and deadlines have a way of taking on more and more blurred contours as time goes on. It means cutting through all almost impenetrable web of overlapping self-interests that makes it very difficult for anyone in a position to change things to look dispassionately at what is really going on and to do something about it.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.