by Levi Russell
Is it possible to bring expert opinion to bear on policy without the current system of administrative bureaucracy? That was the question on my mind when I read this post by my former colleague Tiffany Dowell at Texas A&M. The specific case discussed in Tiffany's post is a jurisdictional dispute against the Army Corps of Engineers (an administrative bureaucracy charged with enforcing much of US federal environmental policy) regarding a provision of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.
I won't get into the specifics of the WOTUS rule here. The point I want to make is broader, namely that we are not using courts as much as we could to accomplish policy goals. Currently at the federal level, the Executive branch has broad powers to interpret legislation, to write regulations that are legally binding for everyone, and to enforce those regulations without much interference from the Judicial branch.
The problem is that administrative bureaucracies have little incentive to consider potential unintended consequences and do a poor job of accounting for the costs of regulations. If, to fix these relatively poor incentives, the power of the bureaucracies is reduced, where would it go? Some of it could go to the Legislature and the rest might be entrusted to the Judicial branch directly. These two branches might do a better job of enforcing things like non-point- (in the case of the Legislature) and point-source (in the case of the Judicial branch) pollution since they're more directly bound by public scrutiny (Legislature) or hundreds of years of nuisance law (Judiciary).
What about expertise? Don't the administrative bureaucracies bring a lot of brain power to these regulatory problems? Definitely, but such expertise is often called on in legislative committees and on the witness stand in court cases. It doesn't require one to be flippant about environmental problems to suggest that there are, potentially, better institutional models to deal with things like pollution and environmental quality.