An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2021

The Administrative State in the Twenty-First Century: Deconstruction and/or Reconstruction

View PDF

Shortly after the 2016 election, presidential advisor Stephen Bannon vowed to pursue the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” signaling the new administration’s view that parts of government itself had stolen power from the American people. But while the administrative state may have been a new term for many Americans, debates around this so-called fourth branch of government have persisted since its origins in the late nineteenth century: Is the administrative state constitutional? Who controls it? What limits should it face? And is it time for significant change?

The Summer 2021 issue of Dædalus explores the future of the modern administrative state—the more than two million civilian employees working largely in government agencies and institutions. Three options emerge: deconstruction via regulation and control by the legislature; tweaking, which would modify existing doctrine without making significant changes; and reconstruction, which might involve adopting ever more flexible modes of regulation, including direct citizen participation in making and enforcing regulation.

Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin struggle to repair the giant machinery of an idle factory in the 1936 silent film “Modern Times.” Film distributed by the United Artists Corporation; image held by the Bettman Archive, courtesy of Getty Images.
Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin struggle to repair the giant machinery of an idle factory in the 1936 silent film “Modern Times.” Film distributed by the United Artists Corporation; image held by the Bettman Archive, courtesy of Getty Images.

Introduction: The Pasts & Futures of the Administrative State

To understand contemporary arguments about deconstructing and reconstructing the modern administrative state, we have to understand where that state came from, and what its futures might be. This introductory essay describes the traditional account of the modern administrative state’s origins in the Progressive era and more recent revisionist accounts that give it a longer history. The competing accounts have different implications for our thinking about the administrative state’s constitutional status, the former raising some questions about constitutionality, the latter alleviating such concerns. This introduction then draws upon the essays in this issue to describe three options for the future. Deconstructing the administrative state without adopting a program of across-the-board deregulation would entail more regulation by the legislature itself and would insist that Congress give clear instructions to administrative agencies. Tweaking would modify existing doctrine around the edges without making large changes. Reconstruction might involve adopting ever more flexible modes of regulation, including direct citizen participation in making and enforcing regulation.

How the Administrative State Got to This Challenging Place

Written for a dispersed agrarian population using hand tools in a local economy, our Constitution now controls an American government orders of magnitude larger that has had to respond to profound changes in transportation, communication, technology, economy, and scientific understanding. How did our government get to this place? The agencies Congress has created to meet these changes now face profound new challenges: transition from the paper to the digital age; the increasing centralization in an opaque, political presidency of decisions that Congress has assigned to diverse, relatively expert and transparent bodies; the thickening, as well, of the political layer within agencies themselves; and the increasing judicial use of analytic techniques invoking the expectations of those who wrote the Constitution so long ago and in such different circumstances. Never easy, finding the appropriate balance between law and politics presents major challenges today.

Milestones in the Evolution of the Administrative State

The modern administrative state, as measured by the number of agencies, their budgets and staffing, and the number of regulations they issue, has grown significantly over the last hundred years. This essay reviews the origins of the administrative state and identifies four milestone efforts to hold it accountable to the American people: passage of the Administrative Procedure Act in 1946, the economic deregulation of the 1970s and 1980s, requirements for ex ante regulatory impact analysis, and the establishment of White House review. These milestones reflect bipartisan consensus on appropriate constraints on executive rulemaking, but they have not succeeded in stemming the debate over the proper role for administrative agencies and the regulations they issue. New milestones may include judicial interpretations, legislative actions, and extensions to executive oversight.

Legislative Capacity & Administrative Power Under Divided Polarization

Conventional wisdom holds that party polarization leads to legislative gridlock, which in turn disables congressional oversight of agencies and thus erodes their constitutional legitimacy and democratic accountability. At the root of this argument is an empirical claim that higher levels of polarization materially reduce legislative productivity as measured by the number of laws passed or the number of issues on the legislative agenda addressed by those laws, both of which are negatively associated with party polarization. By focusing on the content of statutes passed rather than their number, this essay shows that in the era of party polarization and divided government, Congress has actually 1) enacted an ever growing volume of significant regulatory policy (packaged into fewer laws); 2) increasingly employed implementation designs intended to limit bureaucratic and presidential power; and 3) legislated regulatory policy substance in greater detail (reducing bureaucratic discretion) when relying on litigation and courts as a supplement or alternative to bureaucracy. This essay thereby complicates, both empirically and normatively, the relationship between Congress and administrative power in the era of party polarization and divided government.

Author Sean Farhang

Is the Failed Pandemic Response a Symptom of a Diseased Administrative State?

The U.S. national government’s poor pandemic response raises unsettling questions about the overall health of the administrative state: that is, the agencies, people, and processes of the executive branch of the federal government. First, are the administrative weaknesses revealed over the last year symptomatic of widespread problems beyond the public health bureaucracy? Second, are the weaknesses attributable to the Trump administration or do they reveal a deeper malady, something that afflicted earlier Democratic and Republican administrations? In summer 2020, my colleagues and I conducted a survey of thousands of federal executives to help shed light on these questions. These executives reported a low opinion of the then-current administration, the White House, and the president’s political appointees. Yet they also reported long-standing issues of low investment and problems of capacity that extend back into other Democratic and Republican administrations. Years of neglect have culminated in vulnerabilities manifesting themselves in increasingly regular and severe administrative failures. These failures put all of us at risk.

Replacing Bureaucrats with Automated Sorcerers?

Increasingly, federal agencies employ artificial intelligence to help direct their enforcement efforts, adjudicate claims and other matters, and craft regulations or regulatory approaches. Theoretically, artificial intelligence could enable agencies to address endemic problems, most notably 1) the inconsistent decision-making and departure from policy attributable to low-level officials’ exercise of discretion; and 2) the imprecise nature of agency rules. But two characteristics of artificial intelligence, its opaqueness and the nonintuitive nature of its correlations, threaten core values of administrative law. Administrative law reflects the principles that 1) persons be judged individually according to announced criteria; 2) administrative regulations reflect some means-end rationality; and 3) administrative decisions be subject to review by external actors and transparent to the public. Artificial intelligence has adverse implications for all three of those critical norms. The resultant tension, at least for now, will constrain administrative agencies’ most ambitious potential uses of artificial intelligence.

Administrative Law in the Automated State

In the future, administrative agencies will rely increasingly on digital automation powered by machine learning algorithms. Can U.S. administrative law accommodate such a future? Not only might a highly automated state readily meet longstanding administrative law principles, but the responsible use of machine learning algorithms might perform even better than the status quo in terms of fulfilling administrative law’s core values of expert decision-making and democratic accountability. Algorithmic governance clearly promises more accurate, data-driven decisions. Moreover, due to their mathematical properties, algorithms might well prove to be more faithful agents of democratic institutions. Yet even if an automated state were smarter and more accountable, it might risk being less empathic. Although the degree of empathy in existing human-driven bureaucracies should not be overstated, a large-scale shift to government by algorithm will pose a new challenge for administrative law: ensuring that an automated state is also an empathic one.

The Innovative State

To create government that is neither bigger nor smaller but better at solving problems more effectively and legitimately, agencies need to use big data and the associated technologies of machine learning and predictive analytics. Such data-analytical approaches will help agencies understand the problems they are addressing more empirically and devise more responsive policies and services. Such data-processing tools can also be used to make citizen engagement more efficient, helping agencies to make sense of large quantities of information and invite meaningful participation from more diverse audiences who have never participated in our democracy. To take advantage of the power of new technologies for governing, however, the federal government needs, first and foremost, to invest in training public servants to work differently and prepare them for the future of work in a new technological age.

Deconstruction (Not Destruction)

The administrative state should be deconstructed. But that does not mean that the administrative state should be destructed. Although some may use the word deconstruction in the colloquial sense of destroyed, its more technical definition is also more fitting: a close examination of a theory to reveal its inadequacies. That definition is a better fit because there is no real prospect that modern government will be radically overhauled, but there is very good reason to reexamine the administrative state’s theoretical underpinnings and reform aspects of it that have not withstood the test of the time. This essay identifies where theory and practice diverge and offers solutions with realistic chances of adoption. The result should not be the destruction of the administrative state but rather the development of higher-quality federal policy.

Constraining Bureaucracy Beyond Judicial Review

The modern regulatory state–and the field of administrative law that studies it–is in need of “deconstruction.” That does not mean that it should be dismantled entirely. This essay does not embrace the reformers’ fixation on courts as the bulwark against agency overreach. Rather, this essay develops the concept of bureaucracy beyond judicial review: not only agency actions that statute or judicial doctrine precludes from judicial review, but also agency actions that are technically subject to judicial review yet effectively insulated from it. Appreciating the phenomenon of bureaucracy beyond judicial review should encourage us to rethink theories and doctrines in administrative law. If judicial review provides no safeguard against potential abuses of power in most regulatory activities, we must turn to other mechanisms. All three branches of the federal government must play their roles, as should civil society and the agencies themselves.

Capturing the Public: Beyond Technocracy & Populism in the U.S. Administrative State

The core problem of the administrative state is not its own legitimacy, but its role in creating a more wide-ranging legitimacy crisis in American society. The particular problem is that while government administration is necessary in a complex modern society, the mere existence of something as powerful as the bureaucracy is an invitation toward a kind of power politics that undermines the legitimacy of American government as a whole. We can best address this problem by ameliorating the administrative state’s deliberative democratic deficit, whereby deliberation in the public sphere fails to play a steering role over politics at large. Doing so requires incorporating deliberative democratic practices into the American administrative state. 

The Uncertain Future of Administrative Law

A volatile series of presidential transitions has only intensified the century-long conflict between progressive defenders and conservative critics of the administrative state. Yet neither side has adequately confronted the fact that the growth of uncertainty and the corresponding spread of guidance–a kind of provisional “rule” that invites its own revision–mark a break in the development of the administrative state as significant as the rise of notice-and-comment rulemaking in the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas rulemaking corrected social shortsightedness by enlisting science in the service of lawful administration, guidance acknowledges that both science and law are in need of continual correction. Administrative law has the resources to ensure that the provisionality of guidance does not lead to the abuses that conservatives fear. But to deploy those resources–and to carry through the reforms of administrative organization that are their natural complement–progressives must rethink their commitments to judicial deference to administrative authority and administrative deference to presidential authority, commitments on which the progressive defense of the administrative state currently depends.

Some Costs & Benefits of Cost-Benefit Analysis

The American administrative state has become a cost-benefit state, at least in the sense that prevailing executive orders require agencies to proceed only if the benefits justify the costs. Some people celebrate this development; others abhor it. For defenders of the cost-benefit state, the antonym of their ideal is, alternately, regu­lation based on dogmas, intuitions, pure expressivism, political preferences, or interest-group power. Seen most sympathetically, the focus on costs and benefits is a neo-Benthamite effort to attend to the real-world consequences of regulations, and it casts a pragmatic, skeptical light on modern objections to the administrative state, invoking public-choice theory and the supposedly self-serving decisions of unelected bureaucrats. The focus on costs and benefits is also a valuable effort to go beyond coarse arguments, from both the right and the left, that tend to ask this unhelpful question: “Which side are you on?” In the future, however, there will be much better ways, which we might consider neo-Millian, to identify those consequences: 1) by relying less on speculative ex ante projections and more on actual evaluations; 2) by focusing directly on welfare and not relying on imperfect proxies; and 3) by attending closely to distributional considerations–on who is helped and who is hurt.

The Hedgehog & the Fox in Administrative Law

This essay examines the constitutional muddle of the administrative state with reference to how agencies operate–it looks at a hedgehog’s problem from the fox’s perspective. Not only does the structure and delegated authority of administrative agencies often exist in substantial tension with the Constitution, but agencies regularly fail to act in a manner that promotes “constitutional values.” Drawing from my experience as regulatory czar, I explain that regulatory policy is frequently developed with little regard for separation of powers, political accountability, due process, or other values drawn from the Constitution. Proponents of the status quo thus cannot rely on such values to legitimize the ever-expanding activity of administrative agencies.

Author Neomi Rao