Watching the ongoing clown show in Washington, Americans can be forgiven for asking themselves, “Why did we give this bunch of clowns so very much power over our nation and our lives?”
Well, don’t feel so bad, voters. Because you didn’t actually give them that much power. They just took it. That’s the thesis of Columbia Law Professor Philip Hamburger’s new book, The Administrative Threat, a short, punchy followup to his magisterial Is Administrative Law Unlawful? Both deal with the extraordinary — and illegitimate — power that administrative agencies have assumed in American life.
Hamburger explains that the prerogative powers once exercised by English kings, until they were circumscribed after a resulting civil war, have now been reinvented and lodged in administrative agencies, even though the United States Constitution was drafted specifically to prevent just such abuses. But today, the laws that actually affect people and businesses are seldom written by Congress; instead they are created by administrative agencies through a process of “informal rulemaking,” a process whose chief virtue is that it’s easy for the rulers to engage in, and hard for the ruled to observe or influence. Non-judicial administrative courts decide cases, and impose penalties, without a jury or an actual judge. And the protections in the Constitution and Bill of Rights (like the requirement for a judge-issued search warrant before a search) are often inapplicable.
As Hamburger writes, “Administrative power also evades many of the Constitution’s procedures, including both its legislative and judicial processes. Administrative power thereby sidesteps most of the Constitution’s procedural freedoms. Administrative power is thus all about the evasion of governance through law, including an evasion of constitutional processes and procedural rights.”
How did a system designed to provide government of, by, and for the people devolve into a system in which bureaucrats unaccountable to voters (though exquisitely accountable to political players and special interests) produce masses of law that was never voted on by an elected official? Simple: on purpose.
In the early days of the Republic, the franchise was limited. But as the mass of voters became larger, more diverse, and less elite, those who considered themselves the best and brightest looked to transform government into something run not by those deplorable unwashed voters but by a more congenial group. As Hamburger says, “They have gradually moved legislative power out of Congress and into administrative agencies — to be exercised, in more genteel ways, by persons like … themselves.”
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