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By what authority do unelected bureaucrats in administrative agencies increasingly make laws, enforce those laws and adjudicate violations? The fact that all of these activities take place within the executive branch of government appears to be an obvious contradiction of the separation of powers required by the first three articles of the Constitution, the principle of “Rule By Consent” of the governed, and protections of individual liberty. In a strong sense, the regulatory apparatus has grown so unwieldy that the powers routinely exercised by administrative agencies today seem beyond even the reach of elected executives. The rules promulgated by this “fourth branch” of government are essentially extralegal, a point discussed at length in Philip Hamburger’s “Is Administrative Law Unlawful“. He has also explained these issues at the Volokh Conspiracy blog in “Extralegal power, delegation, and necessity“, and “The Constitution’s repudiation of extralegal power“.

Hamburger examines the assertion that rule-making must be delegated by Congress to administrative agencies because legislation cannot reasonably be expected to address the many details and complexities encountered in the implementation of new laws. Yet this is a delegation of legislative power. Once delegated, this power has a way of metastasizing at the whim of agency apparatchiks, if not at the direction of the chief executive. If you should want to protest an administrative ruling, your first stop will not be a normal court of law, but an administrative review board or a court run by the agency itself! You’ll be well advised to hire an administrative attorney to represent you. Eventually, and at greater expense, an adverse decision can be appealed to the judicial branch proper.

This adds up to a dangerous lack of accountability and power. Marginal Revolution points out that critics of Hamburger’s book overlook the potential for harm that could be done by a “vindictive” president. But we should not lose sight of the fact that bureaucrats themselves, at any level, can be vindictive, as the IRS targeting scandal has shown. But that is only one motive for abuse of power; another motive may be more pervasive: the ability to reward those in a position to promote the self-interests of those who populate the administrative state. These are dangers that are endemic to big government. In a post entitled “Are Government Regulators More Virtuous than Everyone Else” (No!), Ivan Carrino highlights the weakness of arguments like those made by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller in “Phishing For Phools“, who call for greater government regulation on the grounds that consumers are vulnerable to manipulation by businesses. Carrino says:

One can’t help but notice the central contradiction in this analysis. On the one hand, it is assumed that markets fail because of ‘normal human weakness.’ On the other hand, it is assumed that regulation, which must necessarily be implemented by human beings with equal or greater ‘weaknesses,’ will somehow solve the problem.

Akerlof and Shiller simultaneously demonize human beings who operate in the private sector while idealizing human beings who operate in the public sector.

Glenn Reynolds has been a prominent critic of the administrative state. As a consequence of the vast and growing body of regulatory rules, it’s become increasingly difficult for individuals, acting on their own or as businesspeople, to know whether they are in acting in violation of administrative law. Reynolds discusses regulatory crime and over-criminalization in “You May Be Breaking The Law Right Now“, and in his great paper “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime” (free download).

Hamburger’s main position is that law should be made by elected representatives, not by bureaucrats who lack direct accountability to voters. Ilya Somin believes that with time, Hamburger will have great influence on legal theorists in this regard. He compares Hamburger’s insights on administrative law to Richard Epstein’s work on takings. Epstein insisted that “almost all regulations that restrict property rights should be considered ‘takings’ that require compensation under the Fifth Amendment.” Somin notes that Epstein’s position, despite harsh criticism from certain quarters, has influenced legal thinking in a dramatic way over the years.

What’s to be done? Can a line reasonably be drawn between constitutional legislative power and delegated rule-making authority? Somin is skeptical that absolute restrictions on lawmaking by the administrative state are practical, in the sense that there will always be details that cannot be addressed in enabling legislation. Others have suggested practical paths forward: Joseph Postell attempts to give a roadmap in “From Administrative State to Constitutional Government“. A recent Glenn Reynolds op-ed, “Blow Up The Administrative State“, gives a qualified defense of Texas Governor Greg Abbot’s proposed amendments to the Constitution. Among other things, Abbot proposes to:

–Prohibit administrative agencies … from creating federal law.
  –Prohibit administrative agencies … from preempting state law.
  –Give state officials the power to sue in federal court when … officials overstep their bounds.
  –Allow a two-thirds majority of the states to override a federal law or regulation.”

I would add that administrative review and adjudication should be independent of the agencies themselves. Also, Representative Mia Love (R-UT) has proposed legislation that would restrict Congress to bills focused on points directly related to a single issue (i.e., no omnibus bills), which would help to check the growth of the administrative state.

All of these measures seem consistent with Hamburger’s views. Reynolds is fully cognizant of the dangers of a constitutional convention. Nevertheless, he recognizes that Abbot’s proposals would impose harder limits on the size of government, and defends them in colorful fashion:

A smaller government would mean fewer phony-baloney jobs for college graduates with few marketable skills but demonstrated political loyalty. It would mean fewer opportunities for tax dollars to be directed to people and entities with close ties to people in power. It would mean less ability to engage in social engineering and ‘nudges’ aimed at what are all-too-often seen as those dumb rubes in flyover country. The smaller the government, the fewer the opportunities for graft and self-aggrandizement — and graft and self-aggrandizement are what our political class is all about.

For further reading, Michael Ramsey at The Originalism Blog posts links to several other essays by Hamburger at The Volokh Conspiracy, where he acted as a guest-blogger.