Congress has become one of America’s most unpopular and disparaged institutions — but a practical reform could quickly change all of this to simultaneously benefit the American people and Congressional approval numbers.
Congress’s fall from grace came ironically from the success it helped to produce.
Whether legitimacy, democracy, accountability, non-partisanship, or separation of powers motivates the sentiment, there are a number of ways, albeit controversial, to reform the federal regulatory state:
(1) Codify the principle in McGrain v. Daugherty (1927) as it applies to regulatory decision-making, forcing agencies to publish jurisdictional statements in the federal register prior to beginning investigations or enforcement actions. This would have avoided many of the due process issues at the center of theLabMDcase. [Read More]
For decades, scholars (and the public) have said that Congress has abdicated its oversight role and that the federal bureaucracy had too much discretion and was largely undeterred because legislative monitoring was so weak. At the end of the 20th century, scholars argued that Congress did not abdicate its oversight role but instead preferred to conduct oversight by responding to whistleblowers, interest groups, constituents and others who came forward with allegations of bureaucratic waste, fraud, or abuse rather than spend the time and energy to actively police each agency all the time. This distinction – between Congress responding to fire-alarms by whistleblowers versus actively police patrolling the bureaucracy – has largely been adopted by legal and political scholars. [Read More]
Among other topics, the senators talked about the delegation of legislative power to administrative agencies and the deference they enjoy, a subject on which they had held their second hearing earlier in the day.
Senator Lankford said, “When an agency—any agency—has the ability to be able to look at any regulation and think ‘this is close enough to permissible construction [that] I think I can get away with this,’ in the strangest of ways the agency is writing a new statute.”
“In our basic constitutional system all legislative powers reside in Congress because all legislative power ultimately is to reside with the American people,” he continued. “If some legislative power is given to an agency, then we’ve got a whole different set of problems.”
Senator Heitkamp agreed, and attributed the problem to “laziness and risk aversion on part of the Congress.” Using the Dodd-Frank Act, the Affordable Care Act, and Waters of the United States as examples, she said, “We’d rather write nasty letters to regulators than to actually take responsibility for making the decision ourselves…. [We] do aspirational legislation and then yell when the regulators get it wrong. That’s the world we’re in because we don’t do our job in the United States Congress.”
The two senators have been working closely on regulatory reform and have voted out of committee several bills aimed at improving regulatory procedures and analysis. Whether their ideas gain traction in the full congress and the administration is another matter. They recognized that they have built consensus in a number of areas, but when asked about their success, Sen. Heitkamp demurred that they wouldn’t be successful until they “passed a public law that actually changed outcomes.”
This year’s National Lawyers Convention launched an extremely important project to develop a constitutional theory for how the Congress should operate in the 21st century. The current Congress has largely failed to organize itself to accomplish the mandate they received in the last three elections. The fundamental reason for this is the failure of Congress to exercise its Constitutional functions -- it has completely abandoned the power of the purse and failed to assert its authority to check the Executive when the President has tried to unilaterally change the law by selective enforcement and executive decree. The Federalist Society can and should inform the public of what these constitutional duties are and encourage a debate among thoughtful leaders to discuss solutions so that Congress can once again function as it was designed in our Constitution.
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David McIntosh is the President of the Club for Growth and Vice Chairman of the Federalist Society.