In the American political system
, the fourth branch of government
refers to a group that influences the three branches of governance defined in the American Constitution
, and executive
). Such groups can include the press
(an analogy to the French Fourth Estate
), the people, interest groups
. U.S. independent administrative government agencies
, while technically part of the executive branch (or, in a few cases, the legislative branch) of government, are sometimes referred to as being part of the fourth branch.
In some cases the term is pejorative because such a fourth branch has no official status. The term is also widely used as a picturesque phrase without derogatory intent. Where the use is intended to be pejorative, it can be a rhetorical shorthand to illustrate the user's belief in the illegitimacy of certain types of governmental authority with a concomitant skepticism towards the origin of such authority.
The concept of the media or press as a fourth branch stems from a belief that the news media's responsibility to inform the populace is essential to the healthy functioning of the democracy. The phrase "Fourth Estate" may be used to emphasise the independence of the press particularly when this is contrasted with the press as a "fourth branch".
Identifying the people as a fourth branch of government may be an attempt to imply that the principle of "government by the people" has been broken. In most modern democratic states, however, it is not the
populace, which makes up the primary source of power, but rather a political and economic elite, which generally excludes the lower socioeconomic classes from the political decision-making process and predominantly represents the interests of the
middle and upper classes of society.
In an article entitled "The 'Fourth Branch' of Government", Alex Knott of the Center for Public Integrity asserted in 2005 that "special interests and the lobbyists they employ have reported spending, since 1998, a total of almost $13 billion to influence Congress, the White House and more than 200 federal agencies.
The administrative agencies that are funded from public money may exercise powers granted by the Congress. Without appropriate controls and oversight this practice may result in a bureaucracy
(in the original literal sense). Some critics have argued that a central paradox at the heart of the American political system is democracy's reliance on the what the critics view as undemocratic bureaucratic institutions that characterize the administrative agencies of government. An argument made for calling administrative agencies a "fourth branch" of government is the fact that such agencies typically exercise all three constitutionally divided powers within a single bureaucratic body: That is, agencies legislate (a power vested solely in the legislature by the Constitution) through delegated rulemaking authority; investigate, execute, and enforce such rules (via the executive power these agencies are typically organized under); and apply, interpret, and enforce compliance with such rules (a power separately vested in the judicial branch). Additionally, non-executive, or "independent" administrative agencies
are often called a fourth branch of government, as they create rules with the effect of law, yet may be comprised at least partially of private, non-governmental actors.
Other "fourth branches"
In 2007, the short-lived ABC drama-thriller "Traveler", the fourth branch existed as a secret society created by the Founding Fathers and composed of the oldest families in the United States, whose purpose is to implements checks and balances on the U.S. government to guide the true course of America.
Rapper and political activist Immortal Technique has a track entilted the "4th branch," and makes references to government conspiracies.