Submerged Independent Agencies

82 Pages Posted: 9 Feb 2022 Last revised: 4 Apr 2023

See all articles by Brian D. Feinstein

Brian D. Feinstein

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School

Jennifer Nou

University of Chicago - Law School

Date Written: 2023


Independent agencies are in the judicial crosshairs. Scholars criticize their efficacy—while still puzzling over how to define the form. By and large, this attention focuses on the top of the agency hierarchy, the extent to which agency heads are insulated from presidential control. What this perspective misses, however, is that power is also exercised by tenure-protected civil servants below. This phenomenon exists not because Congress has delegated them authority, but because executive branch actors have. Consequently, there exists another species of independent agency that requires a reckoning: call them “submerged independent agencies.” These entities are “agencies” because they wield discretionary governmental authority. They are “independent” because they are headed by career staff removable only for cause. And they are “submerged” in that they are relatively unknown to scholars, judges, and sometimes even agency heads themselves.

This Article introduces the concept of submerged independent agencies, sheds light on their scope, and reflects upon the resulting normative implications. Using over forty years of data drawn from the Federal Register, the analysis reveals that when political appointees delegate their statutory authority, the majority of these powers go to civil servants rather than fellow appointees. Once granted, they are rarely revoked. This behavior appears to be driven by strategic political considerations. For example, subdelegations to civil servants in executive agencies occur more frequently during the midnight period before a presidential transition — perhaps indicating an effort to entrench preferences. In addition, subdelegation may be less common during periods of divided party control between the presidency and House. This behavior may reflect an attempt to avoid provoking congressional ire by reassigning powers that Congress had bestowed on others.

These findings raise several legal and normative concerns. Many submerged independent agencies are vulnerable to constitutional challenge and raise difficult statutory questions. Whether the phenomenon is ultimately desirable for the administrative state is an open, empirical question. On the one hand, subdelegations raise the prospect of agency burrowing and entrenchment, and thus diminish political accountability. On the other hand, they can foster expertise and reduce ossification by dispersing decision-making authority within an agency. Accordingly, we consider various institutional mechanisms to help political actors navigate these tradeoffs, such as processes for reviewing actions taken pursuant to delegated authority; regular sunsets of such authority; and a more robust process of revisiting subdelegations during presidential transitions.

Keywords: agency delegations, subdelegations, independent agencies, agency personnel, civil servants, unitary executive, internal separation of powers

JEL Classification: H1, H10, H11, K23

Suggested Citation

Feinstein, Brian D. and Nou, Jennifer, Submerged Independent Agencies ( 2023). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Forthcoming, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 794, C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State Research Paper No. 22-04, University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 953, The Wharton School Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Brian D. Feinstein

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School ( email )

3641 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

Jennifer Nou (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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