To shrink bureaucrats and swat pundits 4

Adolf Hitler. Dictator of Germany. Oppressor of nations. He launched a world war that destroyed tens of millions of lives. He ordered the murder of millions more by execution, torture, incarceration, starvation, forced labor.

Or didn’t he? There are American media people, opinion-writers, who seem to think that he didn’t do any of those things. In their view Hitler was just an authoritarian figure who powerfully opposed political correctness, safe spaces, redistribution, and combating climate change by driving Priuses and recycling garbage. Therefore, any American who comes to power by democratic election and is against those things, is just like Hitler.

Or Hitler’s Italian ally, Mussolini.

Persons who hold that view are ill-informed, under-educated, and/or intellectually stunted. But they are many. They are the rulers of the press and the airwaves; they constitute the greater part of the American Fourth Estate.    

William McGurn writes at the Wall Street Journal:

Guess it depends on what you mean by “authoritarian”.

During the election, Donald Trump was routinely likened to Hitler. The headlines suggest not much has changed.

From the New Republic: “Donald Trump Is Already Acting Like an Authoritarian”.  National Public Radio: “Donald Trump: Strong Leader or Dangerous Authoritarian?” The New York Times: “Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality”. The New Yorker: “Trump’s Challenge to American Democracy”.

What’s striking here is that the same folks who see in Mr. Trump a Mussolini in waiting are blind to the soft despotism that has already taken root in our government.

This is the unelected and increasingly assertive class that populates our federal bureaucracies and substitutes rule by regulation for the rule of law. The result? Over the Obama years, the Competitive Enterprise Institute reckons, Washington has averaged 35 regulations for every law.

In the introduction to its just-released report on how to address this federal overreach, CEI President Kent Lassman puts it this way: “It is time for a reckoning.”

Philip Hamburger is a law professor at Columbia and author of “Is the Administrative State Unlawful?” He believes the president-elect’s cabinet selections thus far — Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency, Betsy DeVos for Education, Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Puzder for Labor — may give Mr. Trump a unique opening not only to reverse bad Obama rules but to reform the whole way these agencies impose them. If Mr. Trump really hopes to drain the swamp, says Mr. Hamburger, cutting these agencies back to constitutional size would be a terrific start. 

For one thing, almost all these departments are legacies of some progressive expansion of government. While an uneasy William Howard Taft, for example, made Labor its own cabinet office on the last day of his presidency, Woodrow Wilson named its first secretary.

Meanwhile, HUD is a child of LBJ’s Great Society. The EPA was Nixon’s attempt to buy liberal approval for his administration. As for the Education Department, it was a reward from Jimmy Carter for the endorsement the National Education Association gave him in 1976. At the time this cabinet seat was established, even the New York Times called it “unwise” and editorialized against it.

There’s a good case that Americans would be better off without most of these departments meddling in our lives and livelihoods, however politically unfeasible this might be. The next best news, however, is that Mr. Pruitt, Dr. Carson, Mr. Puzder and Mrs. DeVos are not beholden to the orthodoxies that drive the rules and mandates these bureaucracies impose.

Mrs. DeVos, for example, has spent her life promoting school choice, and her husband founded a charter school. It is difficult to imagine an Education Department under Secretary DeVos ever sending out a “Dear Colleague” letter to bully universities into expanding the definition of sexual harassment and then encouraging them to handle allegations in a way that has turned many campus tribunals into Star Chambers. Not to mention making a federal case about bathrooms.

Ditto for HUD. Under President Obama, HUD bureaucrats, under the banner of “fair housing”, have taken it upon themselves to decide what the right mix of race, income and education is for your town — and will impose fines and punishments for communities that resist. Anyone remember the people’s elected representatives directing HUD to impose its ideas of social engineering on the rest of America?

Or take the EPA. Whether it’s some Ordinary Joe running afoul of wetlands laws or the department’s deliberate attempt to destroy the market for coal, the EPA needs more than good science. It also needs some honest cost-benefit analysis about the prescriptions it pushes.

And then there’s Labor. Under Obama Secretary Tom Perez, the department has so overstepped the authority Congress gave it (for example, on its overtime rule) that federal judges have stepped in to block it, notwithstanding the courts’ traditional deference. As an employer himself, Mr. Puzder appreciates the fundamental reality of labor: which is that you don’t help workers by making them too expensive to hire.

The good news is that Mr. Trump does not have to fight government by regulatory fiat alone. House Speaker Paul Ryan has a raft of legislation that would reassert the authority of the people’s elected representatives over an unaccountable bureaucracy — including a regulatory budget that would limit the costs an agency can impose each year.

Even without legislation, there are things Mr. Trump could do. Mr. Hamburger, for example, dreams of a president ordering federal agencies to submit all their rules to Congress for approval. He further believes the stars are in rare alignment for reform, with Mr. Ryan pushing it in the House, cabinet secretaries who appear sympathetic to the cause and a popular mandate against rule from above.

“Oddly enough, the danger is that Mr. Trump will not think big enough,” says Mr. Hamburger. “To paraphrase him, the impact of changing the way Washington issues rules would be YUGE—and it would make him a historic and transformative president.”

And he won’t be putting his enemies into concentration camps. Or launching a world war.

And the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and the rest of them will no doubt claim he’s only refraining from such actions in order to prove them wrong.

  • Damon

    McGurn has given us a nice review of how some of those agencies were born.
    It was a discouraging to see him write, “There’s a good case that Americans would be better off without most of these departments meddling in our lives and livelihoods, however politically unfeasible this might be.” Is he saying we’re stuck with these bureaucracies forever?
    Maybe someone in the Trump team has figured out that, for the short term, weakening these agencies from within is the best start to disabling them in perpetuity.
    Let’s hope that’s the strategy.
    It looks like this is shaping up to be a uniquely, resolutely anti-nanny-state team of reformers. Newt had many interesting and entertaining things to say about that in his speech at the Heritage Foundation yesterday on the topic, The Trump Administration Policy Agenda. You can view it as a C-SPAN podcast here…
    https://www.c-span.org/video/?420073-1/newt-gingrich-discusses-presidentelect-donald-trumps-policy-agenda

    • Thank you VERY MUCH, Damon, for the link to that terrific, riveting video. Gingrich at his very best, making the case for Trumpism and his revolutionary movement.

      I am going to try to post it.

      And I agree with the views you express in your comment.

      • Damon

        Thanks. I thought the Newtster was at his best also, but I didn’t want to hype anyone’s expectations too much. Judging by the enthusiasm in that room, we’re off to the races come 20 Jan.

  • liz

    Yes, it would be best to completely do away with these bureaucratic monstrosities, but this is the next best thing, so who’s complaining?
    Trump thinks big, so hopefully he’ll think big as President, too.