Reflections on the REINS Act Hearing

On Monday, I testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law on the REINS Act. The other witnesses were former Rep. David McIntosh and Sally Katzen, who headed the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Clinton Administration. Rep. McIntosh and I expressed support for the REINS Act while Katzen did not. Here are my testimony, my prior post on this hearing, and the C-Span video.

It was a rather short hearing, but the questioning was fairly aggressive, particularly from the Democrats on the subcommittee, including Rep. John Conyers, who attended as the ranking minority member of the committee even though he is not on the subcommittee. During the hearing I was struck by how many of the questions from members were premised on a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the bill, both structurally and substantively. I recognize members of the minority may not have had the most time to prepare for a Monday hearing for which there had only been several days official notice. Nonetheless, I was surprised how unprepared  (or unwilling) some of the committee seemed to be to address the bill on its own terms.  Perhaps I’ve just lived in Ohio too long.

Several members of the subcommittee suggested the REINS Act imposed unconstitutional constraints on executive power, particularly the executive’s responsibility to faithfully execute and enforce federal laws.  Therefore, they suggested, the REINS Act could conflict with Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.  Set aside the curiosity of House Democrats, including Rep. Conyers, defending executive power.  This objection is based on a fundamental confusion about the nature of executive power. The power to “enforce” the laws – that is, the power to take action to see that legal rules are complied with – is distinct from the power to make the rules pursuant to a delegation of authority from Congress. So, for instance, the EPA’s power to impose fines or other sanctions on companies that violate emission limitations is distinct from the EPA’s power to set the emission limits. A requirement that federal regulatory agencies obtain Congressional approval before major rules may take effect requires Congressional assent for the latter, but has no effect on the former.

Sally Katzen raised a more nuanced separation of powers concern, but one that I also find unconvincing, and for largely the same reasons. She noted that under Morrison v. Olson, “a statute is suspect if it ‘involves an attempt by Congress to increase its own powers at the expense of the executive branch,’” and it is reasonable to see the REINS Act as an effort to constrain the executive. Just look at the bill’s full title and findings. The problem with her argument is that it ignores the distinction between executive and legislative functions.

The powers to investigate and prosecute are core executive functions. Any effort by Congress to limit such powers and aggrandize its own is problematic.  This point was made not only in Morrison v. Olson (in which the Court upheld the statute in question, despite its intrusion on executive power), but in other cases as well.  The executive power is distinct from the power to adopt legislative-type rules, however.  The latter is not a core executive function. Rather it is a quasi-legislative power that must be delegated by Congress. As the Supreme Court has stressed time and again (and as I noted in my testimony), federal agencies have no authority to promulgate regulations beyond that which has been given by Congress. And what Congress has given, it may take back. Restraining the exercise of such authority, whether by adopting rules for the exercise of regulatory authority (as under the Administrative Procedure Act or the Congressional Review Act) or limiting the scope of such authority is perfectly acceptable, so long as other Constitutional requirements (such as bicameralism and presentment) are satisfied. As the REINS Act satisfies such requirements, there is no problem. The REINS Act does not curtail executive power so much as it places limits on the legislative-like power delegated by Congress.

For more recent comments on the REINS Act, see David Zaring’s posts here and here.  I’ll have more to say on the Act, and the arguments for and against it, in the days to come.