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The progressive administrative state now seems entrenched in contemporary American political governance. While progressivism first arose on the political scene in the late nineteenth century, and the administrative state came into being with the sudden increase in centralized government during the 1930s, the two came together only later in the twentieth century to form what is now known as the progressive administrative state.
The term administrative state refers to the reach and power of the vast web of administrative agencies that populate the executive branch of the U.S. government. Administrative agencies, directed by the executive branch and run by unelected bureaucrats, possess the power to issue legally binding rules and adjudicatory orders. The heads of agencies may be appointed by the President, and through these heads the agency may be influenced by the President or by Congress, but otherwise the agencies have no elected officials and sometimes little political accountability. The rules issued by the wide array of federal executive agencies far outnumber the laws democratically enacted by Congress.
The term progressive refers to a political philosophy that favors an ever larger federal government that will assume ever more authority over social and individual life. Progressives believe that modern life is so complex that it necessitates a pervasive central government run by elites who can direct society with enlightened expertise. Progressivism mistrusts traditional cultural values and non-governmental social institutions, such as religion and local communities and civic voluntary organization, and believes that the private sector is the source of injustice. Thus, a strong central government is needed as an antidote or override to those other institutions.
Since the 1960s, progressivism has also referred to a set of substantive ideological beliefs characterizing a leftist political agenda. Thus, the progressive administrative state has used the power of big government to push progressive political goals.
The progressive administrative state has its historical roots in the New Deal agenda of the 1930s. Progressives believed that only an unrestrained federal executive branch could remedy all the effects of the Great Depression, as well as engineer society so that such a calamity would never again occur. The progressive mindset saw limited government, the private-sector economy, and the complex web of social and cultural institutions that characterized America since its colonial beginnings as means of oppression. To progressives, individual liberty gave way to the power of big government to engineer society for individuals who do not have the expertise to adequately govern themselves. Government freedom trumped the freedom of the individual.
The New Deal agenda, powered by progressive ideas, brought about a dramatic expansion of the federal government. This expansion occurred through an increase in the size and reach of the administrative state, accompanied by the birth of many new federal agencies. But underlying all this expansion was Congress, since only through congressional laws creating, empowering and funding administrative agencies could such an expansion occur. In rulings that have endured to the present, the New Deal era Supreme Court held that Congress could delegate unlimited power to the administrative state.
Following the New Deal, the administrative state witnessed another significant expansion during the 1960s and 1970s, with the Great Society programs being administered by new and enlarged agencies. During one of the most liberal periods in American political history, Congress enabled the federal executive branch, through its administrative agencies, to pursue a progressive agenda that steadily enlarged the sphere of the national government, while shrinking the social space left to all other non-governmental institutions. A somewhat similar expansion occurred decades later, during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Although Congress plays an essential role in fueling the administrative state, primarily through its funding of the executive branch, for the most part the personnel and operations of the progressive administrative state have remained insulated from Congressional oversight. This is shown by the fact that even when Congress is controlled by a party populated by members who advocate a less expansive, more accountable federal bureaucracy, Congress has been unable to decrease the size or reach of the administrative state. The administrative state has become so intertwined in national life, so involved in so many aspects of social life, that any attempted cutback runs the risk of shutting down the government altogether.
Various scandals and controversies in recent years have shown how politically-biased the progressive administrative state has become. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, used its vast power to target conservative organizations that might be opposed to the progressive administrative state. The Consumer Financial Protection Board’s acting head refused to recognize or yield to the agency head appointed by President Trump. The Veterans Administration actively covered up its failures to provide timely and adequate care to veterans, all the while doling out large pay increases to agency officials.
The progressive administrative state has undermined vital non-governmental social and cultural institutions. The Great Society programs of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, eroded the family and neighborhood. Federal land and environmental agencies have eroded the power of local government. And more recently, the agencies implementing the Affordable Care Act directly attacked religion by forcing religious organizations to act against long-held beliefs. But as all these different aspects of society are undermined, the progressive administrative state grows ever more powerful and becomes the only institution on which individuals can rely for support.
Patrick Garry is professor of law at the University of South Dakota and is the author of Limited Government and the Bill of Rights and The False Promise of Big Government: How Washington Helps the Rich and Hurts the Poor.