Populism and the administrative state

Steve Bannon’s days as an influential player may be over. If so, what is his legacy?

It’s not the election of President Trump. This was down to Trump himself, as the president likes to remind us.

Nor is Bannon’s legacy hanging tough on “Billy Bush weekend,” though at times this seems to be what he is most proud of. And his legacy is not blowing a safe Senate seat in Alabama. Roy Moore gets the credit for that.

In my view, Bannon’s legacy will be the Trump administration’s assault on the administrative state. Readers may recall that early in the Trump presidency, Bannon identified “deconstruction of the administrative state” as one of the administration’s three core policy goals (protecting national security and reviving the economy, including trade, were the other two). He was referring to our runaway bureaucracy’s threat to constitutional government — a threat posed by a lazy and complicit Congress, a liberal judiciary, and an aggressive left-wing bureaucracy.

A little less than a year after Bannon’s pronouncement, Team Trump has taken significant steps to combat the administrative state. Stanley Kurtz describes these steps:

Th[ey] include working with Congress to rescind many Obama-era regulations via the heretofore little-used Congressional Review Act; introducing “regulatory budgeting” designed to remove several outdated rules for each new one put in place; as well as major deregulatory moves at the FDA, FCC (ending net neutrality), EPA (ending the Clean Power Plan), the Departments of Education (withdrawing guidance documents on Title IX), and Interior (reducing federal restrictions on public land use).

And, with the guidance of his legal team, Trump has appointed judges — most notably Justice Gorsuch — who grasp the constitutional critique of the administrative state.

Kurtz suggests that battles over the size, scope, and constitutional legitimacy of the administrative state may become the centerpiece of our politics, energizing populist movements on both right and left. Indeed, he suspects that this process is already underway.

Kurtz directs our attention to a new book — Deconstructing the Administrative State: The Fight for Liberty — by Emmett McGroarty, Jane Robbins, and Erin Tuttle. McGroarty and Robbins helped lead the grassroots movement against the Common Core education standards. Tuttle is one of the Indiana mothers who helped ignite the anti-Common Core movement in the states.

Drawing on this background, the authors highlight the frustrating and sometimes ugly day-to-day politics of the administrative state, examining the state and local levels, as well as the federal. In so doing, they draw attention to the administrative state’s assault on the constitutional authority of the states. It turns out that, in Kurtz’s words, “vast swathes of state policy are now effectively controlled by anonymous federal technocrats.” As former Nebraska governor Ben Nelson once said, “I honestly wondered if I was actually elected governor or just branch manager of the state of Nebraska for the federal government.”

The book’s most controversial theme may be its discussion of business’s role in expanding the administrative state. Kurtz points out that, while business favors the Trump regulatory rollback at the federal level, many businesses are allied with progressive activists seeking to expand the federal bureaucracy’s hold over states and localities:

Businesses favor an unconstitutional federal takeover of education because they want national markets for textbooks and testing software. Businesses support the dumbed-down Common Core standards advocated by many progressives because they’re more interested in “workforce development” than classic liberal education for citizenship. Businesses favor federal attempts to force dense housing and public transportation on the suburbs when that means access to federal subsidies for building projects.

The political class, including the GOP, promotes these interests. McGroarty, Robbins, and Tuttle show how desirable committee assignments and leadership positions are tied to fundraising, which in turn pulls the GOP’s congressional leadership in the direction of businesses that benefit from the largesse of the administrative state. Thus, says Kurtz, “if business opposition to regulation at the national level separates Republicans from Democrats, the affinity of business for the regulatory state, especially at the state and local levels, separates the GOP establishment from the base.”

That’s why “populism” has a major role to play in the “deconstruction” of the administrative state. Indeed, Kurtz contends that “the administrative state is already a populist rallying cry, even if not by that name.” Steve Bannon can take some of the credit.

If President Trump follows his 2017 successes against the administrative state with major moves against federal control of localities — e.g. via common core and HUD’s “affirmatively furthering fair housing” regulation — he will further energize his populist base. If not, Stanley predicts that this base will energize itself once the next Democratic president re-seizes pen and phone on the Obama model

Either way, Kurtz concludes:

We are about a decade into an era of see-saw political battles over constitutionally questionable and vastly ambitious regulatory schemes. Increasingly, if perhaps without us yet quite recognizing it, the battle over the scope and legitimacy of the administrative state has moved out of the shadows and into the very center of our political life.

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