The Road to Lawlessness

court 2There will be a Republican President again someday. This will happen. Democrats, having forgotten that fact, would do well to remember it. Suppose this happens too: Congress cuts taxes, stating in the preamble to the law that it intends to spur economic growth and, Laffer-style, boost revenue. The cuts fail to achieve that goal, so the President—on the grounds that a law should not be implemented in a manner contrary to its stated overall purpose—unilaterally orders the IRS to cut them some more.

After the arguments made to the D.C. and Fourth Circuits to justify the subsidies for coverage on federal Obamacare exchanges, the howls of indignation might be hard to separate from the howls of righteous vengeance. Because while the tax-cut scenario takes the case to eleven, the species of argument is the same: that the President is authorized to violate—or, more politely, let us say, reconceptualize—the letter of a law in the name of achieving its overriding purpose.

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James MacGregor Burns’ Transformative Constitutionalism

Virtually everything that James MacGregor Burns—who died on Tuesday at the age of 95 and who is rightly being honored as one of the greatest political scientists of his time—wrote about the Constitution was wonderfully provocative, incisively argued and totally wrong. He was perhaps the leading Constitutional critic of his era, a vital service, even if Burns sometimes performed it, as in his critiques of separation of powers, in demonstrable error. He was a Progressive, both a student and an advocate of what he called “transforming leadership” and a critic of institutional mechanisms that inhibited it.

Perhaps best known among students of American political thought for his critique of separation of powers in 1963’s The Deadlock of Democracy, Burns—then frustrated by the Senate’s obstruction of civil rights legislation he thought to have been publicly endorsed in the 1960 presidential election—believed he had caught James Madison in a mistake. That is hard to do, and Burns’ effort, while innovative, stumbled.

The attempt was this: If Madison, as he claimed, solved the problem of the abusive majority in Federalist 10—and this without relying on institutional blocking mechanisms—why did he need the added security of the separation of powers, which, to the extent it was unnecessary, was also gratuitously undemocratic? Fifteen years later, George W. Carey decisively answered that Madison was not trying to solve the problem of an abusive majority through the separation of powers, he was trying to solve the problem of a tyrannical government—something the Founder explicitly stated in Federalist 51 that he regarded to be a different problem.

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Bodychecking the Administrative State

It’s been great fun blogging at LibertyLaw this month, and I thank Richard Reinsch for the opportunity to opine. As I conclude my tenure as guest blogger, I want to respond to some of Greg Weiner’s very interesting and provocative suggestions about Congress and the administrative state. He is right to focus on Congress as the centerpiece of any successful reform movement, but I have a few tentative hesitations about his suggestions.

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Noel Canning, Liberty, and the Coase Theorem

Conservatives have been celebrating Noel Canning, the recent Supreme Court decision on recess appointments, because President Obama lost 9-0. But in reality the case was a loss both for liberty and the rule of law. While the result was unanimous, the reasoning in Justice Stephen Breyer’s five-person majority dramatically diverged from Justice Antonin Scalia’s four-person concurrence.  And it is the reasoning, not the result, that may shape our constitutional future.  Justice Breyer’s majority opinion elevates practices of the President and Congress over the original meaning of the Constitution.  Adoption of Breyer’s principle of constitutional interpretation threatens our liberty.

The Recess Appointment Clause provides: “The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” Breyer’s majority opinion permitted the President to make recess appointments during intrasession recesses, not only at the end of the congressional session, and to fill vacancies that happen at any time, not only vacancies that happen during recesses.  Those holdings provide the President with potentially substantial recess appointments power, assuming that the Senate in fact takes intrasession recesses.

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Will Congress Get Its Groove Back?

This week witnessed discordant events that may signal a renewal of congressional government while illustrating the peril of relying on another branch of government—the judiciary—to revive it.

In the first, the Supreme Court on Monday granted certiorari in a case, U.S. Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads, that could mark the first time since pre-New Deal jurisprudence that it invalidates a law on grounds of nondelegation, the principle that Congress cannot transfer its legislative authority to another branch of government. Then, on Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner announced plans for the House to sue President Obama over non-enforcement of laws.

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The Imperial Mount Rushmore

Though it’s been a few weeks since it appeared, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Knott’s excellent piece on whether Woodrow Wilson destroyed the office of the presidency. The clamor about the imperial presidency is on the rise with many commentators (such as George Will) and Knott’s article gives us a better understanding of its rise, as well as its implications. Knott describes the “expectations gap” that has arisen due to modern conceptions of the presidency, where we expect the president to heal the planet, rather than work to enact reforms within the institutions of constitutional government.

In response to Professor Knott I would only mention that I think Woodrow Wilson may not even deserve top billing in terms of producing the rise of presidential power.

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Saved By the Bar?

2014 has been a great year for reading about the tense relationship between the modern administrative state and American constitutionalism. F.H. Buckley’s The Once and Future King attempts to grapple with the accretion of power towards the executive in modern democracies, while Philip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful? explores the challenges that the administrative state poses for the rule of law.

A third contribution by Georgetown Law professor Daniel Ernst, titled Tocqueville’s Nightmare, argues that the tension between bureaucracy and freedom was actually resolved in American history by reformers between 1900-1940. Thus (like Jerry Mashaw’s 2012 book Creating the Administrative Constitution) it seeks to defend the administrative state against accusations that it cannot coexist peacefully without our constitutional system.

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Administrative Adjudication: Even Worse than it Looks?

Like many others at the moment, I am making my way through Philip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful? One of the most shocking chapters is his chapter on America’s “Return to Extralegal Adjudication,” a problem that constitutional law had originally aimed to constrain, but which has re-emerged in the context of the modern administrative state.

I knew that there were problems with administrative adjudication – I just didn’t grasp how pervasive the problems were until Hamburger laid them out so systematically.

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Time to Demote the Separation of Powers?

I’ve just finished F.H. Buckley’s excellent new book The Once and Future King. I’m reviewing the book for another outlet so I won’t repeat myself here, but here’s the short version: Professor Buckley has identified a key weakness in the American system of government, but perhaps has misidentified its roots. Regardless, I think that his book is very important for thinking about a way out of our present gridlock and dysfunction.

Here I would like to take up and challenge one of the most controversial parts of Buckley’s argument.  

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Benghazi and the Constitution

With the creation of a special congressional committee to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the three branches of government will soon head for a constitutional collision. Obama administration officials, past and present, will resist the call to testify. They will respond to congressional subpoenas by claiming executive privilege or asserting their right to avoid self-incrimination. To get answers to its questions, the committee may hold Obama officials in contempt. Under today’s misconceived system of judicial supremacy, the courts may decide the winner. If the original understanding of the Constitution prevailed, Congress would probably prevail. But investigations has become yet another matter where Washington, D.C.’s practices have strayed far from the Constitution.

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