The strict procedural rules that characterize modern administrative law are said to be necessary to sustain the fragile legitimacy of a powerful and constitutionally suspect administrative state. We are likewise told that they are essential to public accountability because they prevent factional interests from capturing agencies. Yet the legitimacy-and-accountability narrative at the heart of administrative law is both overdrawn and harmful. Procedural rules have a role to play in preserving legitimacy and discouraging capture, but they advance those goals more obliquely than is commonly assumed and may exacerbate the very problems they aim to fix. This Article aims to draw into question the administrative lawyer's instinctive faith in procedure, to reorient discussion to the trade-offs at the heart of any system designed to structure government action, and to soften resistance to a reform agenda that would undo counterproductive procedural rules. Administrative law could achieve more by doing less.
TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. DEFENSIVE CROUCH ADMINISTRATIVE LAW A. Distrust B. The Neutrality Myth C. Administrative Law's Status Quo Bias D. Administrative Law's Ideological Asymmetry II. PROCEDURALISM'S ALLURE A. Legitimacy 1. The Rhetoric of Legitimacy 2. Legal Legitimacy 3. Sociological Legitimacy B. Public Accountability 1. The Rhetoric of Capture 2. Capture Deflated III. STOP FETISHIZING PROCEDURE INTRODUCTION
Administrative law comprises a set of procedural rules that affect the pace and composition of government action. That same government action--whether it involves dispensing public benefits or regulating private conduct--allocates resources, risk, and power within the United States. The manner in which administrative law operates will thus favor some interests over others. That's not an indictment: any set of rules has the same character. Increasing the stringency of judicial review for new agency regulations, for example, will tend to aid those who have the most to lose from government action. By the same token, curbing judicial review will help those who stand to gain. There is no neutral, value-free way to calibrate the stringency of judicial review, and the point holds for administrative procedure more generally. The distribution of resources, risk, and power in the United States is partly a function of an administrative law that is supposed to be agnostic as to that distribution.
With increasing urgency over the past two decades, congressional Republicans have advanced proposals to discipline a regulatory state that, in their view, does too much and with too little care. These proposals travel under an array of names and acronyms, but they embrace a common tactic: they pile procedure on procedure in an effort to create a thicket so dense that agencies will either struggle to act or give up before they start. (1) The Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), for example, would subject high-impact rules to an oral hearing, complete with cross-examination and a formal record; ban agencies from engaging in public outreach to advocate for their rules; stitch centralized executive oversight and rigorous cost-benefit analysis into law; impose onerous new rules on the issuance of guidance documents; and make adherence to all of these procedures subject to judicial review. (2) By tilting the scales against agency action, Republicans hope to end "job-killing regulations" and invigorate the free market. Not coincidentally, that means favoring industry over environmentalists, banks over consumer advocates, and management over labor.
The point is not that these are bad priorities. The point is that they are political priorities. Democrats understand as much. "By hamstringing the dedicated public servants charged with ensuring everything from safe infant formula to clean drinking water to a fair day's pay for a fair day's work," writes Sam Berger, a former official in the Obama White House, "this bill would put corporate profits before people's lives and livelihoods." (3) William Funk notes that the RAA will "slow down, if not make impossible, the development of regulations that have major effects on the economy. It does not matter how many lives the regulation might save." (4) But the opposition from the left presents a puzzle. If adding new administrative procedures will so obviously advance conservative priorities, might not relaxing existing administrative constraints advance liberal ones? What if dedicated public servants are already hamstrung? What if it already does not matter how many lives a regulation might save?
Yet there is no Democratic version of the RAA, and little organized energy behind the idea that relaxing administrative procedures will be good for the environment, consumers, and workers. The game is strictly defensive: to protect administrative law, not to transform and rethink it. Actually, matters are worse than that. Some liberals are so enchanted with administrative procedures that they are calling for more. Democrats Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin were Senate cosponsors of the RAA, arguing that it would make regulations "smarter." (5) Cass Sunstein also supports the bill, though not without reservation, and in so doing has thrown his support behind the imposition of the same procedures that Republicans hope will frustrate agency action. (6) Even those who are especially sensitive to the deficiencies of modern administrative law--Jon Michaels comes to mind--endorse court-centered proceduralism as part of their cure. (7)
Why aren't progressives clamoring to loosen administrative law's constraints? It's not for want of targets. Administrative law is shot through with arguably counterproductive procedural rules. In past work, for example, I have argued that the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs imposes a drag on regulation without adequate justification; (8) that the presumption in favor of judicial review of agency action, and particularly the presumption in favor of preenforcement review, should be reevaluated; (9) and that the reflexive invalidation of defective agency action is wasteful and unnecessary. (10) But the list goes on. The judicially imposed rigors of notice-and-comment rulemaking, the practice of invalidating guidance documents that are "really" legislative rules, the Information Quality Act, the logical outgrowth doctrine, nationwide injunctions against invalid rules--all could and perhaps should be reconsidered.
In today's political landscape, however, "regulatory reform" is strictly the province of Republican policymakers, so much so that the anodyne phrase has acquired an antiregulatory connotation. Republicans have a reform agenda. Democrats don't. (11) What's more, the left's hesitation is not a response to Republican control of the federal government. When Democrats held both Congress and the White House in 2009 and 2010, they didn't press to streamline or rethink administrative law.
Liberal quiescence can be traced, instead, to two stories about the administrative state that have become deeply embedded in our legal culture. Fidelity to procedures, one story runs, is essential to sustain the fragile legitimacy of a powerful and constitutionally suspect administrative state. (12) On the other story, procedures assure public accountability by shaping the decisions of an executive branch that might otherwise be beholden to factional interests. (13) Taken together, these stories suggest we should be thankful for the procedures we have and nervous about their elimination.
But this legitimacy-and-capture narrative is overdrawn--indeed, it is largely a myth. Proceduralism has a role to play in preserving legitimacy and discouraging capture, but it advances those goals more obliquely than is commonly assumed and may exacerbate the very problems it aims to address. In building this argument, I hope to call into question the administrative lawyer's instinctive faith in procedure, to reorient discussion to the trade-offs at the heart of any system designed to structure government action, and to soften resistance to the relaxation of unduly burdensome procedural rules. Notwithstanding academic claims that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) has attained a kind of quasi-constitutional status, (14) administrative law remains very much an object of political contestation. Any convention that Congress can't tinker with the APA is quickly eroding, if indeed any such convention ever existed. We should acknowledge that fact even if we lament its loss.
In this, I hope to bring the practice of administrative law into conversation with a line of revisionist academic work that questions the left's embrace of court-centric legalism. That work, among other things, recovers how Progressive and New Deal state-builders embraced a results-oriented, nonlegalistic approach to administrative power. They understood--more clearly than we do now--that strict procedural rules and vigorous judicial oversight could be mobilized to frustrate their efforts to curb market exploitation, protect workers, and press for a fairer distribution of resources. (15) "Substantial justice," declared President Franklin Roosevelt in vetoing a predecessor bill to the APA, "remains a higher aim for our civilization than technical legalism." (16)
The left's antiproceduralist orientation shifted in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, when the fight for civil rights moved into a legalistic register--a shift that, in the revisionist telling, both narrowed the scope of the civil rights movement's ambitions and hampered its efforts to address yawning racial inequalities. (17) Progressive reformers in the 1960s and the 1970s drew inspiration from the civil rights example, and adopted the tools of adversarial legalism (to use Robert Kagan's phrase) (18) in an effort to spur the vigorous enforcement of new environmental and consumer protection laws. (19) That legalism, which opponents of state...