One of the consequences of the low civic literacy I keep complaining about is a widespread lack of understanding of the importance of systemic problems. Our current media environment doesn’t help.
Let me give a few examples to explain what I mean.
The media covers our election “horse races,” but largely ignores the systemic gerrymandering that precedes individual races and pre-ordains too many of their outcomes. The result is that the “win/lose” results don’t really reflect majority voter preferences, but that is rarely the focus of discussion.
The media routinely reports the results of U.S. Senate action, but has only begun to recognize the pernicious effects of the filibuster, which has changed that chamber from one operating on majority rule to a broken system that now requires a super-majority to pass even the most trivial laws.
Americans remain largely unaware of the undemocratic effects of the Electoral College –how that outdated system has operated to install as President candidates who lost the popular vote, and how it threatens to do so again.
As America’s governance has become ever more dysfunctional, recognition of those particular systemic flaws has grown, but–as we can see from reactions to the recent stream of radical Supreme Court decisions–while there is anger at the immediate and visible results, there is little recognition of the truly horrific systemic effects of those decisions.
The overruling of Roe is just one example. As I’ve written before, the Court achieved that result by undermining an important doctrine–a doctrine that supports a number of other important liberties. The damage done goes far, far beyond the “headline.”
Similarly, the media has largely overlooked the truly breathtaking assault on American government represented by the decision in West Virginia v. EPA. That decision limited the extent to which Congress can delegate regulatory decisions, and–together with other, less publicized cases–amounts to a war on government’s ability to protect the “general welfare.”
As Sam Baker recently wrote in Axios, the Court is moving to restrict the authority of regulatory agencies in the executive branch.
These cases may not always feel like blockbusters in isolation, but they can constrain federal power in ways that are almost impossible to reverse, with dramatic implications that cut across multiple policy areas.
Driving the news: Just in the past few months, the court …
Prevented the CDC from enforcing an eviction moratorium due to COVID.
Prevented OSHA from enforcing a vaccine mandate in workplaces.
Prevented the EPA from carrying out some of its most aggressive proposed limits on greenhouse gasses.
Some of those issues are bigger than others, but each of those cases raised questions about overarching legal principles related to executive-branch authority.
Taken together, it’s clear which direction things are headed — the federal government is going to be able to do a lot less than it has been able to do in the past.
At least three of the radical Justices are hoping to reinstate something called the “nondelegation doctrine” — a theory that Congress cannot delegate to agencies of the executive branch any of the powers the Constitution gives to Congress.
It’s not carrying the day right now, but at least three justices seem to want to bring it back. When the court struck down OSHA’s vaccine mandate, Justice Neil Gorsuch — joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — said that even if Congress had expressly given OSHA the power to impose a vaccine mandate, that likely would have been unconstitutional.
In the 1800s, this debate was reasonable. Back then, We The People elected Congressmen (and they were CongressMEN) to make legal and regulatory decisions that were well within the competence of most lawmakers. In the 21st Century, life is considerably more complicated and a great many of those decisions require a degree of scientific, legal and/or medical expertise that we cannot reasonably expect from even our non-crazy lawmakers.
Forbidding Congress from delegating considerable authority over highly technical issues is a way of strangling the ability of government to act.
We can all point to regulatory decisions we dislike. We can argue that this or that rule exceeds the agency’s grant of authority. But removing that authority–telling agency personnel that they cannot regulate environmental hazards, or require technical food and drug safety measures, or mandate certain responses to diseases and pandemics, etcetera, etcetera–is tantamount to telling the executive branch its authority doesn’t reach far beyond coining money and declaring war.
Focusing only on the “headline” results of these decisions–appalling as those obvious results are–blinds us to their systemic implications. This Court is coming for the underpinnings of federal governance.
Of course, if climate change destroys the planet, it may not matter…..