The democratic political economy of Administrative Law

This post is part of our symposium on democratizing administrative law. You can find all the posts in the series here.

K. Sabeel Rahman-

The modern administrative state has always faced ongoing debates about the appropriate balance between administrative authority and procedural constraint. But we are in a new moment of political peril in this debate. A newfound skepticism of administrative power has shaped recent judicial decisions exploring limiting previous deference regimes and even suggesting a revival of the non-delegation doctrine. The defense of administrative agencies takes on even greater urgency in the current political moment, as the Trump administration, from its very outset, has sought the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” These critiques have more in common with the arguments made by conservatives in the 1930s that found a welcome audience in the early Hughes Court than they do with the critiques that followed the New Deal. Indeed, academic and journalistic defenders of the administrative state have warned about the risks of what Gillian Metzger has dubbed the new “anti-administrativism” movement.

But this moment of debate is about more than just the familiar clashes between “big government” and “free market” visions of political economy. These attacks on the administrative state—and the historical and current efforts to (re)build administrative institutions—are a critical frontline for our substantive moral values of democracy, equality, and inclusion.

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Policymaking as power-building

This post is part of our symposium on democratizing administrative law. You can find all the posts in the series here.

K. Sabeel Rahman-

Economic inequality and political inequality go hand in hand. American government is empirically more responsive to wealthy citizens, who are better organized and more represented in policymaking institutions. These findings, coupled with an increasingly blatant and troubling attack on democracy and voting rights more broadly, have helped fuel a renewed push around democracy reform. But an often-overlooked dimension of institutional democracy reform lies within the administrative state itself. It is in the administrative state that many of the critical day-to-day governance decisions—from zoning to civil rights enforcement to worker protections, financial regulations, and consumer rights and more—all take place. Without a greater degree of democratic responsiveness and accountability within the administrative process, these substantive rights are unlikely to be vindicated or equitably enforced. This means that policymakers and administrative law scholars alike need to start approaching the task of administrative institutional design with a greater attention to power disparities—what I call, “policymaking as power-building”.  In this post, I outline the idea of power-building as a focus for administrative policy and institutional design, and use the last decade of financial reform debates, particularly around the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Financial Stability Oversight Council, as examples.

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Law and Politics in Employee Classification

Benjamin Sachs – 

As has been widely reported, the U.S. Department of Labor issued an “opinion letter” yesterday concluding that an unnamed “virtual marketplace company” does not employ the workers who make the company viable. Instead, the letter finds that these workers are independent contractors. The letter is flawed in multiple ways. As Sharon will explain, deciding a major issue of employment law – maybe the major contemporary issue of employment law – through an informal process that allows one party to present all the facts is decidedly inappropriate. There are also multiple substantive problems: as Charlotte pointed out, the letter considers relevant to the control inquiry the fact that this VMC’s workers can also work for other VMCs. I suppose the fact that Wal-Mart workers can also work for Target suggests that Wal-Mart workers are independent contractors of Wal-Mart. Generalizing, I suppose if low wage workers must rely on multiple jobs to make ends meet this should incline decisionmakers to conclude that those workers are all independent contractors.

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Reconstructing the Administrative State

Blake Emerson –

In the early weeks of the Trump presidency, Steve Bannon declared that one of its principal tasks would be the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Though Bannon has since left the White House, this project has so far proved one of its most enduring preoccupations. Administrative bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education, and Federal Communications Commission have reversed course on key progressive initiatives such as reductions in carbon emissions, healthcare insurance enrollment, police reform, redress of campus sexual harassment and assault, and net neutrality.

agencies

The tenured civil service is being sidelined, or even targeted by opposition research firms hired by their own departments. The recently enacted tax bill promises to starve the government of the resources to sustain the remaining pillars of the welfare state, namely Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court casts doubt on the future of a core principle of administrative law—that courts should defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of statutory ambiguities.

This effort to rein-in the regulatory state has been at the center of the conservative agenda since the 1930s, and ascendant since Reagan. It overlaps with a broader neoliberal policy framework that many centrist Democrats share, which remains skeptical of the public provision of goods and services, and “command-and-control” regulation. Bill Clinton’s bipartisan mantra that “the era of big government is over” has steadily eroded regulatory and welfare institutions, and fulfilled its own prophecy that bureaucrats are incapable of promoting the public good.

As we near the pinnacle of this era of governance, Bannon’s declaration throws into relief a constituent feature of any viable counter-movement. If we are to develop a political program capable of rescuing the American polity from private domination, economic inequality, and caste hierarchy, we must think through what kind of administrative apparatus could carry that program into action. One that sees its role primarily as correcting market failures, “nudging” individuals to make decisions the expert deems wise, and maximizing aggregate social welfare, is likely to simply reproduce the logic of private enterprise within government.

The hegemonic framework for policy reasoning today—cost-benefit analysis—attempts to approximate market pricing where it does not exist, asking, for example, how much people are “willing to pay” to avoid certain kinds of harms. Such methods can be useful in ensuring that decision-makers fully take into account the economic effects of proposed courses of action. But they instill a regulatory ideology where the model of formally free, reciprocal, and competitive exchange predominates over the practice of joint action motivated by a common aim. We come to approach even political rights and obligations as priced commodities rather than as products of either reasoned agreement or social struggle. Instead of a cost-benefit state, we need a state that simulates an egalitarian society and stimulates a democratic politics.

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