Crisis Bureaucracy: Homeland Security and the Political Design of Legal Mandates

90 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2006 Last revised: 25 Apr 2014

See all articles by Dara K. Cohen

Dara K. Cohen

Stanford University

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar

Stanford Law School; Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Barry R. Weingast

Stanford University, Department of Political Science


Policymakers fight over bureaucratic structure because it helps shape the legal interpretations and regulatory decisions of agencies through which modern governments operate. In this article, we update positive political theories of bureaucratic structure to encompass two new issues with important implications for lawyers and political scientists: the implications of legislative responses to a crisis, and the uncertainty surrounding major bureaucratic reorganizations. The resulting perspective affords a better understanding of how agencies interpret their legal mandates and deploy their administrative discretion.

We apply the theory to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Two principal questions surrounding this creation are (1) why the president changed from opposing the development of a new department to supporting it and (2) why his plan for such a department was far beyond the scope of any other existing proposal. We argue that the president changed his mind in part because he did not want to be on the losing side of a major legislative battle. But more importantly, the president supported the massive new department in part to further domestic policy priorities unrelated to homeland security. By moving a large set of agencies within the department and instilling them with new homeland security responsibilities without additional budgets, the president supported a change that put agencies under pressure to move resources out of their legacy mandates.

Finally, we briefly discuss more general implications of our perspective: first, previous reorganizations (such as FDR's creation of a Federal Security Agency and Carter's creation of an Energy Department) also seem to reflect presidential efforts to enhance their control of administrative functions - including some not directly related to the stated purpose of the reorganization; and, second, our analysis raises questions about some of the most often-asserted justifications for judicial deference to agency legal interpretations.

Keywords: Homeland security, national security, bureaucracy, legislation, positive political theory, organizational design, regulatory policy, administrative law, Katrina, FEMA, Coast Guard

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Dara K. and Cuéllar, Mariano-Florentino and Weingast, Barry R., Crisis Bureaucracy: Homeland Security and the Political Design of Legal Mandates. Stanford Law Review, Vol. 59, No. 3, 2006; Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 926516; Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 326. Available at SSRN:

Dara K. Cohen

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-9216 (Phone)
650-725-0253 (Fax)

Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies ( email )

United States

Barry R. Weingast

Stanford University, Department of Political Science ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-6010
United States
650-723-0497 (Phone)
650-723-1808 (Fax)

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