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The two-for-one regulatory order issued by the Trump White House in January raises some practical difficulties in implementation. It requires that federal agencies eliminate two regulatory rules for every new rule promulgated, both in terms of the number of rules and any incremental regulatory costs imposed. Two out for every one in. Questions surrounding the meaning of “a regulation”, how to define incremental costs, and whether a particular rule is actually mandated by legislation are not trivial. Nevertheless, the spirit of this order is admirable and it serves as the leading edge of the Administration’s attempt to roll back the scope and impact of excessive government authority.

The cost of regulation is vast. Economists at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University have estimated the total cumulative cost of regulation in the U.S., finding that regulation has reduced economic growth by 0.8 percent per year since 1980. Without the additional regulatory growth since 1980, the U.S. economy would have been about 25 percent larger than it was in 2012. That’s a $4 trillion shortfall, or roughly $13,000 per person.

While regulation and administrative control over the private economy takes an increasing toll on economic growth and human welfare, the problem goes beyond economic considerations: administrative agencies have “progressively” usurped not just legislative but also judicial power. The concentration of executive, legislative and judicial power constitutes a “fourth branch of government“, a development inimical to the principles enshrined in our Constitution and a prescription for slow-boil tyranny. It facilitates rent seeking and corporatism just as surely as it creates a ruling class of individuals who act on their personal and arbitrary inclinations. We are ruled by men backed by police power, not impartial laws.

Glenn Reynolds writes that unelected rule makers and central planners are able to manipulate decisions across a broad swath of the economy and society. He quotes a new book by Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School called “The Administrative Threat“:

Government agencies regulate Americans in the full range of their lives, including their political participation, their economic endeavors, and their personal conduct. Administrative power has thus become pervasively intrusive. But is this power constitutional?

A similar sort of power was once used by English kings, and this book shows that the similarity is not a coincidence. In fact, administrative power revives absolutism. On this foundation, the book explains how administrative power denies Americans their basic constitutional freedoms, such as jury rights and due process. No other feature of American government violates as many constitutional provisions or is more profoundly threatening. As a result, administrative power is the key civil liberties issue of our era.

Two previous posts on Sacred Cow Chips have dealt with Hamburger’s work. The first, “Hamburger Nation: An Administrative Nightmare“(1) provides the following explanation of his position:

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.

The exercise of rule-making authority, and even extra-legal legislative action by the administrative state, has economic costs that are bad enough. Hamburger also emphasizes the breakdown of the separation of executive and judicial powers inherent in the enforcement and adjudication of disputes under administrative law. This was the subject of the second Sacred Cow Chips post referenced above: “Courts and Their Administrative Masters“. It reviewed an unfortunate standard established by court precedent involving judicial (“Chevron”) deference to administrative agency fact-finding and even interpretation of law. While the decisions of administrative courts, which are run by the agencies themselves, can be appealed to the judicial branch, such appeals often amount to exercises in futility.

“…courts apply a test of judgement as to whether the administrative agency’s interpretation of the law is “reasonable”, even if other “reasonable” interpretations are possible. This gets particularly thorny when the original legislation is ambiguous with respect to a certain point.

…the courts should not abdicate their role in reviewing an agency’s developmental evidence for any action, and the reasonability of an agency’s applications of evidence relative to alternative courses of action. Nor should the courts abdicate their role in ruling on the law itself.

This paper on Judicial Deference to Agencies by Evan D. Bernick of Georgetown Law makes the case that judicial deference is a violation of the constitutional separation of powers, concluding that:

… in cases involving administrative deprivations of core private rights to ‘life, liberty, or property,’ fact deference violates Article III’s vesting of ‘[t]he judicial power’ in the federal courts; constitutes an abdication of the duty of independent judgment that Article III imposes upon federal judges; and violates the Fifth Amendment by denying litigants ‘due process of law,’ which requires (1) judicial proceedings in an Article III court prior to any individualized deprivation of ‘life, liberty, or property’; and (2) fact-finding by independent, impartial fact-finders.

Inez and Jarrett Stepman in Townhall note that there are almost three million well-paid federal employees with job security that would make most private sector workers envious.

Though the abolishment of the spoils system [which allowed civil service hiring and firing based on political party] was meant to mitigate corruption and incompetence, it has resulted in a toxic combination of enhanced agency power and an entrenched civil servant class with its own institutional—and frequently political—interests, virtually unaccountable to the president or any other elected official.

The Stepmans discuss legislation that might stem the usurpation of lawmaking power by the administrative state. They are convinced that the administrative state must be reigned-in. Ironically, expanded executive authority means that the process of reversal is not that difficult in many cases. By way of example, here’s a piece on the ease of undoing certain Obama era regulations. Executive orders, or “the pen and the phone” in Obama’s charming parlance, lack legitimate legislative authority and can be reversed by new executive orders. I firmly believe that reversing the earlier orders is the right thing to do at the moment, but the unchecked authority that makes it possible (and the supremacy of the administrative state) is a source of economic instability, and it must end. Eric Boehm makes this point eloquently in Reason at the last link above:

New policies that affect wide swaths of the economy and reshape entire business models should go through Congress, or at the very least should be subject to the public rulemaking process. Guidance documents and other ‘dark matter’ regulations that by-pass those processes can be un-made as quickly as they were made, leaving businesses to deal with an ever-changing and unpredictable regulatory state that does not really help anyone, no matter which side you’re on in any individual policy fight.


(1) The principle title “Hamburger Nation” was intended as a play on Glenn Reynolds’ paper “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime“, in which he discussed the judicial implications of over-criminalization and regulatory overreach.