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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

The Executive Branch: How does a law become a rule?

Congress often passes vague statutes because, as Stone says, ambiguity is a wonderful refuge. This leaves bureaucrats ample room to create law. In this class we will discuss issues of bureaucracy and implementation. We will review the desire for consistent standards and the need for flexibility in rules, the reasons legislators consider implementation throughout the policymaking process, and examine the different kinds of bureaucrats and their various motivations and constraints. We will conclude with thoughts on the 12+ years it took to implement the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

Quotes of the Day

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House from 1995–1999 and author of Contract with America is credited for a sea change in congressional politics when the Republicans took control of both the House and Senate following the 1994 presidential election. In his latest book, he expresses concern over government "red tape". The origin of the phrase, government red tape, is thought to come from the practice of binding legislative bills with red ribbon to hold them neatly together.

“There is great danger that homeland security considerations will create a visa system so complex and intimidating that foreign students will simply stop coming to the United States. There is considerable evidence that foreign students are already finding it too burdensome and are going elsewhere. As foreign universities and laboratories continue to improve, American universities might be put at en even greater competitive disadvantage.

Americans do not appreciate how much self-inflicted damage is being done by the visa process. The European Union is moving toward a world in which people from twenty-five countries will cross borders without having to show a passport or stop at the immigration desk. At the very time Europe is becoming more open to travel, the United States is building a wall of red tape and intimidation.

I am very much for using biometrics to track terrorists or potential terrorists and for implementing those capabilities as soon as possible. But I am against cutting America off from foreign scientists, students, tourists, and business travelers in the process....If America ceases to be attractive to world-class talent from all over the world, it is America that will be the loser.”

Newt Gingrich, Winning the Future, 2005, Regnery Publishing Inc.

Discussion Questions

What does government red tape mean to you? Are the myriad of rules that bureaucracies create and follow necessary?


  • Martin Shapiro. A Golden Anniversary? In Regulation, 1996.
  • Code of Federal Regulations, excerpt of Part 7
  • OMB Watch. OMB Proposes Changes in Regulatory Decision-making
  • OMB Watch. Freedom of Information Act and Paperwork Reduction Act
  • Giandomenico Majone and Aaron Wildavsky. Chap. 8, Implementation as Evolution, in Implementation, 1984.1
  • John Kingdon. Chap. 2, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies.


  • OMB Watch. The Administrative Procedures Act -
  • Federal Register Online -
    • Official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of Federal agencies and organizations, as well as executive orders and other presidential documents.
    • Searchable for rules, proposed rules, etc. 1994-present
  • Federal Communications Commission, The Rulemaking Process -
    • Short glossary of general rule-making terms
    • Tips on how to file a comment
    • Good information in general - not specific to the FCC
  • FDA. Making Your Voice Heard at FDA -
    • Submit e-comments (on FDA rules up for comment) through FDA website
    • How to comment on proposed regulations and submit petitions
  • FDA dockets page,
    • Online reference for FDA dockets from 1992-present, as well as 1980 and 1976.
  • USDA fruit and vegetable program rulemaking page -
    • Up-to-date notice of proposed and final rules specific to the USDA fruit and vegetable programs
    • Includes the official text of the dockets as well as news releases
  • The National Organic Program -
    • Portal page of news, publications and resources.
    • You can find the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, rules that implement the law, and proceedings of the National Organic Standards Board.
  • USDA poultry program rulemaking page,
    • Up-to-date notice of proposed and final rules specific to the USDA poultry programs
    • Includes the official text of the dockets as well as news releases
  • "Your one-stop site to comment on federal regulations." -
    • On this site, you can find, review, and submit comments on Federal documents that are open for comment and published in the Federal Register, the Government's legal newspaper.
    • Browse regulations published for comment today
    • Search for regulations by topic
    • Check which regulations have comments due today
  • Federal Executive Branch -
    • Find each executive department (eg. USDA) and agencies within that department (eg. AMS, ERS, FNS), which execute policies and laws.
  • Whitehouse: Current cabinet members of the Executive Branch -
    • Useful to know who's advising the president on policy issues and execution
  • Acronyms and Abbreviations of the U.S. Government -
    • Searchable list of government acronyms and abbreviations


Policy Exercise #1 due. Please see the Assignments folder for this course. It includes the assignment along with student examples.