Administrative Law—both in its New Deal and its modern, post-Chevron version—rests on legislative supremacy. In other words, it assumes that there’s a halfway functional Congress. What if there isn’t? What happens when Congress fails to update ancient statutes and, when legislating at all, enacts convoluted statutes (such as Dodd-Frank or the ACA) that no one can make sense of? What if everyone starts taking it for granted that Congress is hopeless? Ashley Parrish and I explore the question in a forthcoming article in the GMU Law Review. (Mr. Parrish, a dear friend and frequent co-conspirator, is a partner at King &…
We will soon know if the U.S. Senate changes hands, but I’m not one of those waiting with bated breath. I had lunch with a prominent conservative columnist a while back. “It’ll be different in November,” he exulted. “We’ll take the Senate!” “And then what will happen?” I asked. “We’ll pass legislation and send it up to Obama,” he answered. “And then what will happen?” I asked.
My friend thought that the most arrogant and narcissistic President the country has ever seen would blanche before Mitch McConnell. Count me a skeptic. We have gridlock this year, and we’ll very likely have gridlock in 2015, whatever happens in November.
Oh, I know there’s the Senate’s advise and consent role, when it comes to judicial appointments. Conservatives like to pretend that that’s important. All it means is that, with divided government, we won’t see Justice Eric Holder. So we’ll see Justice Elena Kagan. Tell me what’s the difference.
I’m grateful for the responses to my earlier Office for Civil Rights post, especially the comments that illustrate the corrupting consequences of “government by guidance.” As I suggested, and as many readers emphasized, the subject raises much larger questions about lawful government. Herewith a few more comments on how difficult this is—and a hopefully cheerful suggestion as to what could be done.
The trajectory from lofty, well-meant enactments (the Civil Rights Act, Title IX) to the scape-goating of students, teachers, and bandleaders is a straight line: statute to regulation to “interpretation/guidance” to “voluntary” compliance. But the incentives are lousy each step of the way. Congress would rather delegate than legislate; the agency would rather bully than write a rule; and the regulated entities would rather throw people overboard and kowtow or pay money than fight back. This happens everywhere; OCR is just an example. And, no: this isn’t about the Obama administration or particularly wayward bureaucrats. If it were, things could be fixed at the ballot box, or by courts. The grim, incentive-driven march of government by guidance isn’t.
There’s a terrific new blog out there, under the umbrella of the Yale Journal on Regulation. Cleverly entitled Notice & Comment, it’s the brainchild of Chris “Just-Because-We-Teach-AdLaw-Doesn’t-Mean-We’re-Boring” Walker. The blog follows the AdLaw literature, so we don’t have to. It also has posts on ongoing events, and they’re darn good. Among the recent entries: a fun piece by Peter Conti-Brown, an occasional contributor to this site, on how POTUS can fire the head of the Secret Service (“head” is a metaphor here) but not the President of the New York Reserve—and how stupid is that? And Jeff Pojanowski has an…
Michael Greve has a great post on the German origins of progressive Administration Law in the United States. Michael notes that the German tradition was not all bad – instead there was a liberal and legal tradition of judicial review in Germany, which did not employ deference. The progressives borrowed most of the bad stuff.
This German idea of the Rechtsstaat – of a state or of government bound by the rule of law – was one that was celebrated by Austrian scholar Friedrich Hayek. Hayek, while known as a Nobel Prize winning economist and a political theorist, also studied law in Vienna where he imbibed the ideal of the Rechtsstaat.
In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek devotes a portion of the book to the development of a law of liberty. Hayek’s approach is to discuss various countries’ distinctive contributions, from England to the United States to Germany. Hayek argues that the movement for liberty reached Germany last and therefore its contribution was in many ways the most developed and the one that best fits the modern world.
Chapter 24 in Philip Hamburger’s brilliant book on—or rather against—administrative law is entitled “The German Connection.” The Progressive architects of administrative law—Frank Goodnow; Ernst Freund; John Burgess and apparently the rest of Columbia Law School; Woodrow Wilson—all admired the Germans’ post-Hegelian, “scientific” approach to administration. Many had studied at German universities. And so America acquired what she’d never had before: administration. The rule of “experts,” outside constitutional channels and constraints.
Herewith, as promised in Part I, a few additional thoughts on Halbig’s lessons. My humble observations aren’t intended as nuanced legal analysis; there’ll be time enough for that as the cases progress. Today’s subject is the broader context of how the doctrines and institutions that have sustained administrative law are coming apart at the seams.
Two-plus weeks have passed since the D.C. Circuit’s panel decision in Halbig v. Burwell and the Fourth Circuit’s opposite decision in King v. Burwell, a substantially identical case. The King plaintiffs have filed their cert petition; and the government has asked for rehearing en banc in the D.C. Circuit; and the initial agitation has subsided. It’s a fine time to highlight a few lessons that, in my estimation, we have already learned. I offer three sets of observations: today, I’ll focus on the interplay between constitutional and administrative law and on the advocacy network that produced Halbig and its companion cases; tomorrow, I’ll analyze the institutional pathologies and ideological derangements that account for the contretemps.
These are interesting times, constitutionally speaking. In the past two weeks, federal courts have ruled both ways on Obamacare. In the D.C. Circuit, a panel ruled that the law allows for subsidized health insurance in exchanges created by state governments, but not in the “backstop” exchange created by the federal government. Meanwhile, the Fourth Circuit says that the statute allows subsidies in both.
Who is right?
The standard narrative used to justify the existence of the administrative state and thus legitimate its powers is that America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries entered into a realm of industrialization, corporate power and concentration, density and urbanization, among other causes, that entailed the need for expert rule in executive agencies. Necessity of government action required courts and rule-making agencies that could adjust the social order to rapidly arising needs not anticipated in the 'horse and buggy' Constitution. However, what if there really is nothing new under the sun about administrative power? Instead, what if its call…