The Need For Reconstruction, Not Deconstruction, Of The Administrative State

03/13/2017 10:35 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2017

Is there a need for deconstruction of the administrative state? No. Is there a need for reconstruction of the administrative state? Yes.

Let’s examine why beginning with the concept of the administrative state.

Before Steve Bannon’s proclamation that one of the three “lines of work” of the Trump administration was “deconstruction of the administrative state”, the phrase “administrative state” was primarily the province of academics and wonks at think tanks.

Political scientist Dwight Waldo defined the concept of The Administrative State in his classic 1948 “public administration” text. Waldo’s main hypothesis was that career public servants were not just implementers of policy set by elected officials.

He asserted they had a significant role to play in establishing and ensuring policy and processes that protected the public interest, complied with democratic principles, and adhered to the Constitution. Waldo further argued that because of this scope of responsibility, a government agency could not be run or managed like a business.

Waldo’s broad conceptualization of the administrative state was and is not embraced by those in the academic community who believe the public sector administrator’s job is to engage in scientific management. It is totally rejected by those in the conservative establishment who see it as a complete overreach.

For example in a February 28 article, Rich Lowry, national editor of the National Review, writes,

The administrative state has been called “the fourth branch” of government. It involves an alphabet soup of executive agencies that wield legislative, executive and judicial powers and thus run outside of and counter to our constitutional system. The agencies write “rules” that are laws in all but name, then enforce them and adjudicate violations.

After commenting on the origins of the administrative state in the Progressive Era; its growth from the New Deal to the Great Society; and, then railing against President Obama’s use of that state as a way “to govern without Congress”: Lowry observes:

Something as entrenched as the administrative state won’t be “deconstructed” in one presidential term, or two. If it can be dialed back, though it will be a significant victory for old-fashioned representative government.

We agree with Lowry on the need to “dial back” the administrative state. Dialing back, however, is not deconstruction. It is not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It is reconstruction. It is keeping the baby, ensuring the right water level and improving the bath tub. Reconstruction as a concept is not something that is alien to the Trump presidency or the American presidency in general.

In his remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting where he called for “deconstruction of the administrative state”, Steve Bannon advised that, as part of its “economic nationalism line of work”, cabinet heads such as Wilbur Ross at Commerce and Steve Mnuchin at Treasury are “rethinking how we’re gonna reconstruct the – our trade arrangements around the world.”

What is good for trade arrangements should be good for the administrative state. This is especially so because it appears that the deconstruction focus is primarily on regulations.

At CPAC, after chiding the “progressive left” for putting some thing into a regulation if they couldn’t get legislation passed, Bannon stated, “That’s all gonna be deconstructed and I think that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.”

Put this into the category of politics makes strange bedfellows. The Obama administration also had a serious concern about over-regulation. That’s why they brought in Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) which oversees federal regulations.

Sunstein ran OIRA from 2009 to 2012 and imposed a rigorous and disciplined approach to making decisions regarding existing and new regulations. According to the White House, he saved “at least $10 billion and millions of hours of paperwork” by weeding out or streamlining old regulations. In an op-ed, Sunstein wrote that the net benefits from regulations acted upon during his tenure exceeded $91 billion.

Fast forward to 2017: In late February, the Trump White House issued an executive order focused on “enforcing the regulatory reform agenda.” The order calls for the establishment of regulatory reform officers and task forces within each agency and department of the federal government. These groups are to get input from those being regulated and to deliver reports within ninety days identifying regulations that can be eliminated, replaced or revised.

In a column for Bloomberg View, Cass Sunstein observed that the reform teams were following up on earlier executive orders: An order by President Trump to eliminate two regulations for every new regulation issued. A 1993 order by President Clinton to do a cost-benefit analysis on all new regulations. And, a 2011 President Obama order to do a review of existing regulations to get rid of those that were no longer necessary.

Based upon this and other factors, Sunstein observes that “…President Trump’s latest action suggests that reform is the aim rather than deconstruction – and the reform might even turn out to be reasonable.”

Reform done in a responsible manner involving all stakeholders is reasonable and necessary. So, too is reconstruction. And, most presidents since Jimmy Carter have undertaken some type of initiative to reconstruct or change the operations of our federal government.

President Carter introduced zero-based budgeting to have units justify all budget requests from scratch. President Reagan famously declared that “government is the problem” and came in with an agenda similar to Trump’s - strengthen the military and squeeze or change the domestic agencies.

President Clinton had the most ambitious initiative which was to “reinvent government”. This was undertaken through the National Performance Review of all agencies and the passage of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) which required every agency and department to set strategic and annual goals and to measure and report on the progress on them.

President George W. Bush built on GPRA by adapting the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). PART extended the performance focus to the program level.

Early in the Obama administration, Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, issued a memo to the heads of all departments stating, “…that we must transform our government to operate more effectively and efficiently.” His memo went on to note that “identification of agency high priority performance goals is a first step toward developing the President’s agenda for a high performing government.”

We believe that a “high performing government” should be the target. That can be accomplished through reconstruction rather than deconstruction.

Reconstruction recognizes that high performing organizations have the right strategy, the right structure, the right systems, the right leaders and employees, and a laser beam focus on the needs of their customers/the citizens they serve.

In our 2010 book, Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring the American Dream, we presented two key recommendations for driving that reconstruction:

  • Have each federal agency conduct a zero-based organizational assessment and develop a strategic blue print to become a high performing organization.

  • Implement a government wide operational excellence initiative with maximum feasible employee participation.

We presented those recommendations along with the rationale and details for their implementation with a firm understanding and complete conviction that “Government is Not the Problem.”

Nor, is the administrative state the problem. There is no need to deconstruct the administrative state.

There is a need, on the other hand, for deconstructing a state. That is the apocalyptic state of this nation today.

We must deconstruct the apocalyptic state. That state threatens the future of our citizens, country and the world in which we live.

We will have more to say about this in our next blog. Stay tuned.

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