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EDITORIAL: Tapping the brakes on the administrative state

Abortion got the headlines, but another Supreme Court decision could prove just as momentous.

On Thursday, the justices took a major step toward reinvigorating the separation of powers doctrine and restoring regulatory accountability to the hulking administrative state. In a 6-3 decision, the majority ruled in West Virginia v. EPA that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority when during the Obama administration it unilaterally created rules designed to limit coal plant emissions in order to address global warming.

“A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

The case will have ramifications for a host of bureaucratic regimes — and for Congress itself, which routinely crafts vague statutes leaving unelected federal functionaries to interpret legislative intent, essentially writing law.

Progressives were aghast that a majority of the high court would determine that the Constitution — a document that honors limited government — might preclude the federal bureaucracy from usurping the powers of nationally elected senators and House members. Despite their professed fealty toward “democracy,” their agenda depends in large part on a powerful coercive bureaucracy exercising authority over the masses.

“Whatever else this court may know about,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent, “it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions.”

Balderdash. The ruling does nothing of the sort. Congress remains free to explicitly craft a regulatory apparatus to do precisely what Justice Kagan desires. But the ruling correctly points out that executive branch agencies have no license — no matter how well-intentioned — to stretch statutory language beyond recognition in an effort to impose significant regulations unless they have been specifically authorized to do so by the legislative branch.

This is entirely consistent with the checks and balances enshrined in the nation’s founding document. The Legislature enacts the laws and the executive branch enforces them. Regulatory agencies should have no power to write statutes absent authority bestowed by Congress.

This case was not about the wisdom of fighting climate change any more than the court’s ruling last year against the CDC’s eviction moratorium was about whether such a policy was reasonable. The issue is whether executive branch agencies may take advantage of congressional inertia to usurp legislative powers under the guise of promoting vital regulation. Surely, Americans of diverse political outlooks can agree that major statutory decisions should be made by Congress and approved by the president rather than created in the executive branch offices of unaccountable federal bureaucrats.

In other words, the Wall Street Journal noted, “Congress must give clear commands before the executive branch can write costly rules that tell Americans how to live their lives.”

Amen.

The Founders had a particular familiarity with a smothering administrative state, as Jefferson colorfully complained in the Declaration of Independence that King George III “has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

In the past century, the federal bureaucracy has grown at a breakneck pace and seized power to meddle in everyday life that previously would have been unimaginable. This ruling taps the brakes a bit and makes clear that the judiciary must no longer grant excessive deference to executive branch agencies seeking to expand their domain. It may also prove an incentive for members of Congress to actually do their jobs.

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