Conservatives give a lot of lip service to the Constitution, but too few actually read it or know what it says. While many focus on the admittedly important Bill of Rights, the meat of the Constitution outlines the basic functions of government, including the checks and balances designed to keep tyranny from America’s door. It is respect for these checks and balances that has driven some lawmakers to launch the Article I Project, an initiative aimed at restoring the separation of powers and using Congress to rein in the excesses of the executive branch.
Article I of the Constitution specifies the powers and duties of the legislative branch, as distinct from the president and the judiciary. It is in the spirit of these powers that Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has emerged as the prime mover behind the project. Lee recognizes that, over the years, Congress has ceded much of its authority to executive branch agencies and the president. Each of the last several administrations has used executive orders and regulators at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Education and Food and Drug Administration to effectively make law without the benefit of congressional oversight.
The Article I Project is defined by a set of four guiding principles designed to guide any and all legislative products that may emerge in the coming months. These are:
1. To reassert the “power of the purse” to Congress by reforming the budget process.
2. To put an end to governing by crisis and the legislative “cliffs” that invariably lead to bad policy.
3. To enact regulatory reforms, such as the REINS Act, which requires congressional approval of all major regulations.
4. To reform the laws that allow the president and cabinet agencies to ignore or rewrite laws passed by Congress.
The project, launched in February, has already produced one legislative product, the Separation of Powers Restoration Act introduced by Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, in the House and cosponsored by 46 other members, including a good portion of the House Freedom Caucus. The bill would change existing law by specifying that judges should not automatically defer to regulatory agencies on matters of statutory interpretation. This practice, known as the Chevron Deference, has been the standard since 1984, and has resulted in regulatory agencies taking broad liberties with the law, unrestrained by judicial review.
The Separation of Powers Restoration Act puts an end to agency deference, and it requires that courts actually do their jobs and evaluate whether agency action is either statutorily legal or unconstitutional.
It’s understandable why Congress has been so delinquent in upholding its role in the lawmaking process. Electoral pressures mean that representatives could face backlash for any unpopular decision they make. By delegating those choices to unelected bureaucrats, legislators can get the policy outcomes they want without having to put their name to a vote. Additionally, as the size of government has grown, passing all laws through the legislative process has become cumbersome; there are many who prefer to let someone else do all the work, while continuing to collect a government pension and the prestige of holding federal office. However, the result of this indolence has been an executive branch that has routinely run roughshod over the basic liberties on which this country was founded.
The Article I Project as a whole, which is being buoyed by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, in the House as well as by Lee in the Senate, is a long overdue attempt to restore the founders’ vision of a government that was held accountable by three coequal branches. Lee and Hensarling, along with the other supporters of this project, deserve congratulation for their willingness to stand up against executive overreach and for taking proactive steps to restore the proper checks and balances in government.
Op-ed by Adam Brandon, Salt Lake Tribune, March 24, 2016