They operate in obscurity, largely without oversight by inspectors-general, the news media or the president, toiling ostensibly for the good of taxpayers who rarely see the impact of their work, and likely don’t even know they exist.
They are the little federal agencies hidden away in the far corners of the Washington bureaucracy.
Practically speaking, they sometimes report to no one — or rather, the heads of these tiny operations are often appointed by presidents whose attentions are focused on larger, more pressing matters.
They include the likes of the 300-person Presidio Trust, the Vietnam Education Foundation and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad.
The latter had 20 commissioners, a three-person staff and a budget of $634,000 in 2012, and is tasked “with identifying monuments, historic buildings, and cemeteries in Central and Eastern Europe associated with the heritage of Americans and obtaining assurances from the governments of the region that these sites will be protected.”
Nearly 1,000 people work at the Railroad Retirement Board, which invests and administers railroad pensions.
The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities has 452 employees, while the separate Commission of Fine Arts has 11.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has 17 council members and 20 staffers, and its director made $146,000 in 2012.
All but a few of the boards, agencies and commissions listed in the accompanying charts are not offices within Cabinet-level departments, but rather legislatively-mandated units that sometimes operate on par with Cabinet agencies themselves, with no layers between their directors and the president.
All are pieces of a government so large that waste-watchers can't pinpoint abuse because they can't even wrap their minds around its breadth.
As the Washington Examiner's October series on the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service showed, these diminutive agencies are just as susceptible to waste, fraud and corruption as any other part of Washington.
The Examiner's series on FMCS led to an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the resignation of the agency's director.
The series documented that the FMCS director appointed by President Obama used federal funds for buying artwork created by his own wife and to host champagne parties.
The 230-person agency with a budget of $50 million occupies a K Street tower where each employee has a massive windowed office and the private gym is stocked with amenities like a television that cost taxpayers $1,000.
FMCS operated separate and apart from the protocols of the rest of the government, sidestepping contract law to do business with friends, spending $500 on a single USB drive instead of going through government-wide catalogs designed to get the best deal, and snapping up the latest iPhones with all the accessories, while others were tethered to BlackBerrys.
Interestingly, the 47-person National Mediation Board does exactly what the FMCS does — provide labor-management arbitration services — but only for the railroad and airline industries.
But FMCS is just the beginning. There are 32 comparably-sized federal entities in the chart above this post, while below it are 100 even smaller ones.
They include offices such as the Denali Commission, whose IG earlier this year made the radical suggestion that he and all of his colleagues be put out of a job.
“I have concluded that [the agency] is a Congressional experiment that hasn't worked out in practice,” wrote Mike Marsh. “I recommend that Congress put its money elsewhere.”
The agency had 13 staff and a budget of $37 million in 2012 and was a vehicle for Alaska's notoriously pork-hungry delegation, such as Republican Rep. Don Young, to funnel money to the state.
The federal payroll is littered with the pet projects of lawmakers, often continuing to draw appropriations unnoticed after their benefactors depart and sometimes after their purpose has been fulfilled.
“The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years,” according to the website of the agency, which is named after the 1964 Republican presidential nominee.
Twenty-seven years later, the Goldwater program still employs seven people.
The Udall foundation, named after a liberal lawmaker, was established in 1992 for similar purposes and employs more than 50 people.
At least one congressman, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has introduced a "sunsetting" law that would require the legislature to renew each agency's funding periodically or it would be automatically disbanded.
Brady believes his proposal would spare lawmakers from bad optics and thus make it easier to do away with pork barrel.
A similar system in Texas state government eliminated 43 agencies and saved $700 million, according to Brady.
Significant waste can occur at tiny agencies because, while their budgets are typically only tiny fractions of Cabinet agencies, they are still sizable.
And sometimes they lack the more refined controls and layers of accountability found in the bigger departments.
The Corporation for National and Community Service pays people to volunteer in their communities, but officials also gave cash to people who performed no community service in exchange for kickbacks. The agency’s bare-bones computer system made cash flows hard to track.
On Dec. 6, a former IT worker at the National Science Foundation pleaded guilty to stealing $90,000 in equipment.
But on the flip side, if each tiny agency had all the internal controls and oversight mechanisms of large ones, that, too, would be extremely inefficient.
The U.S. Postal Service is overseen by the Postal Regulatory Commission, 70-person body virtually unknown to most Americans.
The Postal Regulatory Commission is overseen by its own inspector general, which has three full-time employees, including an administrative assistant, plus more investigators detailed from elsewhere -- all dedicated solely to investigating waste, fraud and abuse among their 67 colleagues.
That IG issued only one report during the most recent semi-annual period, which was less than riveting.
Perhaps what the government needs is to establish another agency to audit that IG.
In fact, there is an obscure government entity dedicated to voluntary coordination between obscure government entities: It is called the Small Agency Council, and lists 80 member agencies.
Smallest of the Small
|Administrative Conference of the U.S.||15|
|Advisory Council on Historic Preservation||52|
|African Development Foundation||32|
|Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records|
|American Battle Monuments Commission||30|
|Appalachian Regional Commission||9|
|Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board||40|
|Arctic Research Commission||6|
|Army Board for the Correction of Military Records|
|Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation||7|
|Board for the Correction of Naval Records|
|Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals|
|Board of Decorations and Medals|
|Canada-U.S. Permanent Joint Board on Defense, U.S. Section|
|Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board||42|
|Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation||13|
|Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee|
|Commission of Fine Arts||11|
|Commission on Civil Rights||41|
|Committee for Purchase from People Who are Blind or Severely Disabled||31|
|Controlled Unclassified Information Counsel|
|Council for Native American Farming and Ranching|
|Council of Economic Advisers||30|
|Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency||7|
|Council on Environmental Quality/Office of Environmental Quality||23|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission||9|
|Election Assistance Commission||28|
|Farm Credit System Insurance Corp.||10|
|Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council||12|
|Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer|
|Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission||75|
|Flight 93 Advisory Commission|
|Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation||5|
|Indian Arts and Crafts Board|
|Information Security Oversight Office/Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel|
|Institute of Museum and Library Services|
|Integrated Nitrogen Committee|
|International Boundary Commission: U.S. and Canada||7|
|International Joint Commission: U.S. and Canada||20|
|James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation||5|
|Japan-United States Friendship Commission||12|
|Legal Services Corp.|
|Marine Mammal Commission||21|
|Medal of Valor Review Board|
|Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission||36|
|Medicare Payment Advisory Commission||50|
|Migratory Bird Conservation Commission|
|Mississippi River Commission|
|Morris K. Udall And Stewart L. Udall Foundation||51|
|National Assessment Governing Board|
|National Capital Planning Commission||40|
|National Commission on Libraries and Information Science||17|
|National Council on Disability||27|
|National Indian Gaming Commission|
|National Mediation Board||48|
|National Security Council||70|
|Northern Border Regional Commission|
|Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board||21|
|Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission||59|
|Office of Government Ethics||73|
|Office of National Drug Control Policy||90|
|Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation||38|
|Office of Science and Technology Policy||27|
|Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects||4|
|Patent Trial and Appeal Board|
|Postal Regulatory Commission|
|Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board||4|
|Public Interest Declassification Board||7|
|Recovery Act Accountability & Transparency Board||41|
|Roosevelt Campobello International Park Commission|
|Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction|
|Surface Transportation Board|
|Trade and Development Agency||47|
|Trademark Trial and Appeal Board|
|U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom||20|
|U.S. Interagency Council On Homelessness||26|
|U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board|
|U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission|
|U.S. Board on Geographic Names|
|U.S. Chemical Board|
|U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad|
|U.S. Election Assistance Commission|
|U.S. Institute of Peace|
|U.S. Parole Commission|
|U.S. Sentencing Commission|
|U.S.-China Economic And Security Review Commission||27|
|Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission||14|
|Valles Caldera Trust||49|
|Vietnam Education Foundation||11|
|White House Council on Women and Girls|
|William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board|
|World War I Centennial Commission|