09/14/2018

Dismantling The Administrative State

Mark Pulliam, Law and Liberty

A remarkable movement is underway in the legal world, unlike any other during my lifetime. Growing skepticism regarding the conceptual underpinnings of the “administrative state”—the alphabet soup of powerful administrative agencies that dominate Beltway policymaking—portends imminent retrenchment of well-established understandings (and judicial precedents) that enabled the federal Leviathan. Doctrinal reversals of a significant nature are rare, particularly when they reflect conservative initiatives and overturn the foundations of Progressive governance. Yet we are on the verge of such a dramatic shift.

For half a century—dating to New Deal-era reliance on administrative agencies to “fix” the ostensibly broken machinery of democracy and free markets—it was assumed that “administrative law” is an essential feature of modern life. Specialized expertise by unelected bureaucrats was the “secret sauce” that would remedy the purportedly sclerotic—and old-fashioned—system of checks and balances contemplated by the Constitution. Justice Felix Frankfurter expressed the consensus view when he described administrative law as an essential form of “governmental supervision” that could not be effectively exercised through “self-executing legislation” or the judicial process. [1]

Indeed, there was widespread bipartisan consensus among both politicians and legal scholars that what we now call the administrative state was a good thing—or at least necessary and inevitable. Chevron v. NRDC, the 1984 Supreme Court decision establishing judicial deference to administrative agency interpretation of federal statutes, was the high-water mark of our infatuation with administrative law.

Stanford University law professor Michael McConnell has described Chevron as “a central pillar of the modern administrative state. It is a systemic thumb-on-the-scales in favor of the government’s view of the meaning of the statute, even if that view changes with political winds and even if it contradicts earlier judicial interpretation.” Chevron is important, McConnell explains, because:

In the modern administrative state, Congress delegates vast swathes of policy-making power to the regulatory agencies, and the courts no longer even attempt to ensure that the key policy choices are made by the legislative branch. The only practical limitation on excessive delegation is to construe delegations of power strictly, to ensure that the agencies exercise only the quantum of power Congress explicitly delegated to them. Chevron goes the opposite way: it green-lights agency assertions of power, even when it is fairly obvious from the context that Congress had no such intention, so long as the words of the statute can be reasonably stretched to accommodate them.

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