Making the bureaucracy accountable

The WSJ has an editorial on this topic. Here are the highlights:

The basic problem is that Congress delegates far too much power to regulators, passing ambiguous laws that convert the agencies into quasi-legislative bodies that aren’t politically accountable. Even if President Obama is exploiting this trend like never before, it is hardly new, nor unique to either party. Most politicians support the status quo because, being politicians, they can take credit for popular goals and then blame the bureaucracy for the costs and problems they create.

Yet the Constitution vested Congress with the duty to make laws, not to make vague suggestions about what it might be good for the law to be. And now there is a growing movement to force Members to take responsibility for the laws they pass, and to force Administrations to be accountable for the laws they create through regulation.

. . .

The Dodd-Frank financial reform is a tabula rasa that the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell estimates requires no fewer than 243 new rules by 11 agencies over a dozen years. In the mere 10 months since ObamaCare passed, HHS has engineered rules that impose both a ceiling on insurance industry profits and de facto price controls on private premiums. The EPA is abusing the clean-air laws of the 1970s to raise carbon energy prices as a cap-and-tax surrogate. Only last month, the Federal Communications Commission imposed "net neutrality" despite a federal court ruling that the action was outside its purview. There are many other examples.

. . .

One promising idea is a bill that would require Congress to approve major regulations.

Oh, excuse me, I just started laughing so hard that I spilled coffee on my keyboard while I was falling out of my chair.

The piece goes on to explain how this would work:

The bill guarantees an up-or-down vote (no Senate filibuster) on $100 million-plus economic regulations, which would only take effect if Congress passed a joint resolution and the President signed it. Such a procedural change would revolutionize government in practice and help restore the representative democracy the founders envisioned.

Liberals attack the Reins Act as antiregulatory, and it’s obviously true that rules would be written differently if they were subject to political give and take. But as New York Law professor David Schoenbrod points out, the bill is really pro-accountability. Congress could no longer get away with open-ended bills that evade the choices that make up public policy, while Administrations would need to seek support of a majority directly answerable to voters.

Sigh. Where to begin?

I suspect that many of my readers might – at first blush – think this sounds like a good idea. My suspicion is that we already have way too much democracy – we really don’t need more. What we need is an accountable bureaucracy. To make something accountable it must be accountable to a responsible body that exercises authority. Congress is not such a body. Making something responsible to a body without any willingness to exercise power is a contradiction in terms.

In addition, the bureaucracy already controls Congress. The reason that the statutes are so vague now is because the bureaucracy writes them (your humble blogger has written many pages of at least one of the bills mentioned in the article). We already make Congress dance, it would barely slow us down if we had to make them dance an extra step.

The purpose of any such reforms should be to make the bureaucracy accountable. Making it possible to fire some of us would be a good start. If Congress tied our funding to the success of our regulations, I think you’d see an immediate spike in the quality of regulations. Making the agencies legally liable for crappy regulations would also be quite interesting.

Of course, none of this will happen. An unaccountable bureaucracy is a pillar of the progressive society – perhaps it’s the pillar. The courts would, therefore, find any change to the status quo to be unconstitutional.


5 Responses to Making the bureaucracy accountable

  1. josh says:

    I teach an AP government course. We are covering Congress and I want to give students a realistic picture of ‘how a bill becomes a law’. I would like to use a few of your posts including this one if you don’t mind.

  2. Jehu says:

    A return to the spoils system is the only answer IMO. All bureaucrats and administrators need to be fire at will, for any reason, including being a member of a ‘protected class’. Basically they need to have zero civil right to employment and zero protections from firing. That’s the only way to have actually accountable government, and you just have to accept the inevitable abuses that will come with it (quid pro quo for sexual favors, etc).

  3. denisjeans says:


    […]Making the bureaucracy accountable « Foseti[…]…

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