Federal agencies often face confusion over who, exactly, their bosses are.

Is it the White House/President who appoints their leadership? Is it the congressional committees that, theoretically, oversee them?

(The Washington Post)

Hoping to drill down on the answer, a group of researchers spent several years surveying top officials at federal agencies.

In their study, "The Irony of Congressional Oversight," three Vanderbilt University researchers surveyed 2,400 federal executives, asking them who they perceived as holding more influence over the agency's policy and activities: The White House, the congressional oversight committees, or the majority party in Congress.

The answer:

1. The White House

2. Congressional oversight committees

3. The majority party leadership

Their chief finding: "...Congress is less influential relative to the White House when more committees are involved. While increasing the number of involved committees may maximize the electoral benefits for members, it may also undercut the ability of Congress as an institution to collectively respond to the actions of the presidency or the bureaucracy."

Essentially, the more congressional oversight committees are involved with policing a given agency, the less that agency perceives any of those committees as influential over how it should behave.

"Even Congress itself has a hard time telling which committees have jurisdiction over different issues," said David Lewis, one of the researchers. "The people who are running programs and agencies turn to the White House for policy guidance, not to Congress."

At the end of the day, federal executives say, jurisdictional confusion undermines the ability of any one of them to hold sway or influence over how the agency behaves.

The bureaucratic mess that can be created by overlapping congressional oversight is well known and well documented. Perhaps the best-known example of this laid out in the report's opening page:

The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States urged that “Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security... [We believe that Congress does have the obligation to choose one in the House and one in the Senate, and that this committee should be a permanent standing committee with a nonpartisan staff” (pg. 421).
Despite this recommendation, Congress created a situation where 108 committees and subcommittees oversee the Department of Homeland Security. Many believe that this amount of oversight has prevented Congress from being able to effectively monitor or control the department.
Testifying before Congress after the attacks at Fort Hood, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton argued that “enduring fractured and overlapping committee jurisdictions on both sides of the Hill have left Congressional oversight in a "unsatisfactory state” (Kaniewski, 2010).
Mann and Ornstein (2006) similarly refer to the lack of oversight as “crushing,” and the New York Times opines that the oversight is “a comedy that invites a fresh national tragedy...” Critics lodge these charges despite — or perhaps because — so many committees  and subcommittees exercise jurisdiction over the department.
This example underscores the importance of how the internal organization of Congress might affect whether Congress or the president exercises more influence over agency policymaking...

The solution?

Fewer oversight committees with more-specifically defined jurisdictions. But, the Vanderbilt researchers note, that's unlikely to happen anytime soon. The more committees there are (and more broadly defined they are) the more chances the congressional leadership has to place its members in plum positions.

In the meantime, it won't be Congress that's calling the shots -- at least when it comes to federal agencies.