Now that Congress has gotten past debt-ceiling drama, next up is wrangling the nation’s budget for the coming year. A budget is about policy and spending priorities. Amid debate over where tax dollars get spent, lawmakers also have an opportunity to consider significant, long-term reforms. Here’s one they should do: claw back their own lawmaking powers from the executive branch.
For a long time, members of Congress have complained about various rules made by executive branch agencies. These decisions by unelected bureaucrats take freedom away from the people in ways no one voted for.
What can be done? A new Competitive Enterprise Institute report proposes a reform that defunds agency policymaking and builds greater capacity within Congress to do that job. It would be a significant change to how Washington operates, but there are ways to make this change that are not disruptive.
First, we propose starting with only two agencies. This allows lawmakers and the public to see the practical consequences of the reform and address problems before broader application. It is better to have a gradual transition than an abrupt change throughout the government.
Second, we propose an alternative system to address matters the current administrative process handles. We call our approach “supplemental legislation.” In short, Congress would be in charge of the regulatory process. Once lawmakers approve a regulation, that is what would be implemented. If Congress can’t agree, the president can choose between the proposal with the most votes in the House or the Senate. In this way, elected officials would issue any needed regulation. Still, they would also be accountable for their votes at the ballot box.
To prevent these new responsibilities from intruding on the essential duties of Congress, we propose that all such supplemental legislation be considered one day a month. Additionally, such legislation would be non-debatable, non-amendable, and non-filibusterable. It would be a quick, simple-majority up-or-down vote process.
Just restoring legislative power to Congress isn’t enough. We also need to ensure that judges control the adjudication process. Currently, the heads of many administrative agencies get to pick their own adjudicators to serve as judges. Unsurprisingly, in-house judges often rule in the agency’s favor. If they rule against the agency, sometimes the head of the agency can overrule the in-house judges. Notably, suppose these in-house judges don’t rule in the agency’s favor often enough. In that case, they can be replaced with ones more favorable to the agency. The unfairness of this process is evident and inexcusable.
To fix this, we suggest defunding agency adjudications and having federal magistrates — officers under Article III of the Constitution — take over such adjudication. These magistrates would be selected, appointed, removable and accountable to the federal circuit court to hear the appeal. This process ensures that neither party in a conflict can influence the judges, which makes the process fairer. Agencies shouldn’t be prosecutors, judges and juries; instead, they should be overseen by unbiased magistrates selected by federal judges.
This proposal is a significant change, but it is needed to strengthen the constitutional guardrails of the government’s separation of powers. It won’t be easy, but it is a viable solution to the current problem — runaway executive branch power. It would return us to a simple idea: the legislature sets the rules the people follow, judges oversee punishment for violations, and the executive branch focuses on its primary job of executing the law.
If the people don’t like regulations passed by their lawmakers, they will have the ultimate ballot box power: remove officeholders who created harmful regulations and pick new leaders. This accountability strengthens democracy and curtails the out-of-control mission creep that plagues us now.
Congress has the power to do more than complain. It can take back policymaking power and help all Americans get a fair chance at dealing with Washington policies that affect them.