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Government officials who run administrative agencies must make countless decisions every day about what issues and work to prioritize. These agenda-setting decisions hold enormous implications for the shape of law and public policy, but they have received remarkably little attention by either administrative law scholars or social scientists who study the bureaucracy. Existing research offers few insights about the institutions, norms, and inputs that shape and constrain agency discretion over their agendas or about the strategies that officials employ in choosing to elevate certain issues while putting others on the back burner. In this article, we advance the study of agency agenda-setting by offering concepts and frameworks that emerged from a Penn Program on Regulation workshop we organized at which more than two dozen leading scholars, practitioners, and government official discussed the relatively hidden world of agency agendas. Addressing the concept of agenda-setting itself, we distinguish between mandatory and discretionary agendas as well as between agenda-setting over high-salience regulatory initiatives versus workaday regulatory activities. We also recount what workshop participants shared about the influence of courts, Congress, the White House, and interest groups over administrative agendas. Finally, we consider a variety of possible reforms that might make agency agenda-setting more democratic, open, and responsive. Overall, we show that agency agenda-setting, notwithstanding its relative opacity, is a distinctive and important process that warrants greater study by legal and empirical scholars.


Administrative law, regulation, bureaucracy, agenda-setting, regulatory process, government agencies, Congress, federal courts, White House, interest groups, American politics, public policy, research challenges, reform, Penn Program on Regulation

Publication Title

Administrative Law Review

Publication Citation

68 Admin. L. Rev. 865 (2016).