“The administrative state,” what’s that?

Last week, in a speech to CPAC, Steve Bannon declared that the Trump administration is battling for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” CNN’s coverage of the speech appeared under the following headline: “Steve Bannon outlines his plan to ‘deconstruct’ Washington.” The Washington Post’s headline (in the paper edition) was similar. It mentioned “deconstruction” but not that which is to be deconstructed — the administrative state.

In its story, CNN made no effort to explain what conservatives mean by “the administrative state.” The Post’s story, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, took it to mean “the system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president says have stymied economic growth and infringed upon U.S. sovereignty.” This, as we shall see in a moment, is largely incorrect.

Subsequently, Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican consultant, took up the subject. He playfully confessed ignorance, saying “I’m not sure what ‘deconstruct’ really means in [the] context” of “tax reform, regulatory reform and trade.”

Dan Balz, an esteemed political reporter, also tried his hand. In a thoughtful piece comparing Presidents Reagan and Trump, Balz said of Bannon’s call for deconstruction of the administrative state:

In less grandiose language, it represents an effort to pare back the federal government. Republicans have long advocated exactly that.

The first sentence is true, but too general. The second sentence fails to recognize a shift of emphasis in the conservative critique of the federal government.

To my knowledge, only E.J. Dionne, the partisan liberal columnist, was sufficiently literate in contemporary conservatism to tell the Post’s readers accurately and with precision what Bannon meant by the administrative state. And he seems to have received an assist from. . .Scott Johnson.

Dionne explained:

[Bannon’s phrase] reflects a long-standing critique on the right not just of the Obama and Clinton years but of the entire thrust of U.S. government since the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Critics of the administrative state — “the vast administrative apparatus that does so much to dictate the way we live now,” as Scott Johnson, a conservative lawyer and co-founder of the Power Line blog, put it in 2014 — see it as unconstitutional because regulatory agencies make and enforce rules based on authority they claim was illegitimately ceded by Congress.

(Emphasis added)

Bingo, except for the fact that the long-standing critique has sharpened considerably in recent years. Philip Hamburger’s book, about which Scott was writing in the passage quoted by Dionne, helped considerably with the sharpening, which is also reflected in the difference between Justice Scalia’s approach to reviewing administrative decisions and the approach suggested by Judge Neil Gorsuch (discussed here).

I doubt that the Post as an institution is interested in knowing the provenance of, and the thinking behind, the pronouncements of Trump administration intellectuals like Steve Bannon. The more cartoonishly their views are presented, the better.

But I don’t think this is the desired approach of reporters like Balz. For them, the problem is a lack of familiarity with conservative thought.

They should follow E.J. Dionne’s example and consult Scott Johnson.

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