In politics of the United States, the fourth branch of government is an unofficial term referring to groups or institutions perceived variously as influencing or acting in the stead of the three branches of the US federal government defined in the Constitution of the United States (Legislative, Executive and Judicial). Views as to whether the influence is due or undue or the actions are for good or ill also vary.
Such groups can include the press (as a departure from the 'Fourth Estate'), the people (in sum or as grand juries), and interest groups. The Independent administrative agencies of the United States government, while technically part of any one of the three branches, may also be referred to as a ‘fourth branch’.
The U.S. intelligence community has also increasingly been seen as a fourth branch. In this regard, the 'fourth branch' aspect of the intelligence community together with interest groups and other external actors intersects significantly with the construct of 'deep state'.
While the term ‘fourth estate’ is used to emphasize the independence of 'the press', the fourth branch suggests that the press is not independent of the government. The concept of the news media or press as a fourth branch stems from a belief that the media's responsibility to inform the populace is essential to the healthy functioning of democracy.
Douglass Cater, in his 1959 "The Fourth Branch of Government" offered the hypothesis that the press had become "a de facto, quasiofficial fourth branch of government" and observed it was the looseness of the American political framework that allowed news media to “insert themselves as another branch of the government”. Cater was "convinced that, insofar as the press did act as a true political player (rather than an unbiased observer of politics), it corrupted itself and went astray from its primary responsibility—to convey important information and to act as a nonpartisan watchdog for the public against all trespassers on their rights."[a][b]
In 1985, Walter Annenberg noted that several commentators were applying the term 'fourth branch of government' to the press to indicate that it has at least as much if not more power to direct public policy than do the other three branches, in part because of its direct contact with the public and its protection "by the First Amendment from responsibility for what they report".
[T]he grand jury is mentioned in the Bill of Rights, but not in the body of the Constitution. It has not been textually assigned, therefore, to any of the branches described in the first three Articles. It 'is a constitutional fixture in its own right'[case cites]. In fact the whole theory of its function is that it belongs to no branch of the institutional government, serving as a kind of buffer or referee between the Government and the people.[cites]
Others have used the term in calls to, e.g, "empower the people" by petition or referendum processes or, similarly, for "broader and more direct participation in our governance" by eliminating the Electoral College, implementing e-voting and other measures.
In an article titled "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 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 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 composed at least partially of private, non-governmental actors.
Alfred W. McCoy states that the increase in the power of the U.S. intelligence community since the September 11 attacks "has built a fourth branch of the U.S. government" that is "in many ways autonomous from the executive, and increasingly so."
Stephen F. Cohen, in a May 17, 2017 interview with Tucker Carlson said : "You and I have to ask a subversive question. Are there really three branches of government. Or is there a fourth branch of government? These intel services?" and that a military alliance Obama tried with Putin against terrorism was "sabotaged by the Department of Defense and its allies in the intelligence services." Each of Trump's efforts to "cooperate with Russia?" have been "thwarted [by] a new leak of a story."
Per Engelhardt: “Classically, … the three branches of government … were to check and balance one another so that power would never become centralized …. The founding fathers [never envisioned] that a fourth branch of government, the national security state, would arise, dedicated to the centralization of power in an atmosphere of total secrecy. In the post-9/11 years, it has significantly absorbed the other three branches.”