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The Case for the Administrative State

The Case for the Administrative State
AP Photos/Beth J. Harpaz

Dear Reader —

Critics hold the administrative state responsible for inflating the size and scope of the federal government, harming businesses and interfering with our private lives as well as weakening the constitutional mechanisms of self-government by empowering unelected bureaucrats to formulate numberless rules and regulations. Bucking this line of argument, Paul Verkuil of the Center for American Progress makes a positive case for the administrative state. A former law professor and chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States from 2010–2015, Verkuil is hardly insensitive to the constitutional issues surrounding administrative law or the many problems and inefficiencies that plague our federal bureaucracy. He insists, however, that the administrative state is the solution, not the problem.

In Episode 3 of “The Future of the Administrative State,” Verkuil discusses his latest book, Valuing Bureaucracy: The Case for Professional Government, in which he makes his case for more and better bureaucracy, a revitalization of “professional government.” He argues that whatever its faults — and despite the nearly universal derision it garners — bureaucracy is vital to the modern state, being the most effective means to organize, administer, and carry out the myriad of governmental functions. The reality, as Verkuil sees it, is that “we need bureaucrats to deliver the public services we expect.”

Verkuil concedes that the federal bureaucracy is often ineffective and too costly. But this is not because it is too big. Citing research by the political scientist John J. Dilulio, he highlights the discrepancy between the size of the federal civilian workforce, which has remained more or less constant since the Kennedy era, and the dramatic increase in federal agencies, administrative duties, government spending, and U.S. GDP since that time. Agencies are asked to carry out all sorts of “complicated work” that they “didn’t take on in the older days,” and yet they do not possess the personnel needed to do so effectively. 

What has filled the gap between the growing demands placed on the administrative state and its limited personnel? The answer is that federal agencies, especially since the Clinton era, increasingly rely on private-sector contractors to carry out their functions. Thus, Verkuil thinks, the real problem — both practical and constitutional — is the growth not of the administrative state, but of what he calls the “contractor state.” 

Ultimately, Verkuil’s argument is more pragmatic than ideological. “Just because we believe in a good civil service, which I’m really arguing for, doesn’t mean it has to be a large government.” Whatever our policy preferences and whatever government functions we do think are necessary — however many or few — we all want the government to work well. And that’s why, Verkuil insists, we cannot do without an effective bureaucracy — why we must reform, rather than reject the administrative state.

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


The Congressional War on Expertise The Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle defends the Congressional Budget Office amid the controversy surrounding its scoring of the GOP health-care proposals. 

Don’t Leave Health Care to the Free Market. Farzon A. Nahvi makes his case in The New York Times

Republicans Are Coming for Your Minimum Wage Hike. The New Republic’s Clio Chang considers what Republican efforts to roll back minimum wage hikes mean for the Democratic Party.

America’s Low-Wage Rut. In Slate, Daniel Gross offers an explanation for why wages have not kept apace with economic growth.

Trump Gives Protectionism a Bad Name. In The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner argues that Trump’s trade policy “diverts attention from an entirely legitimate and overdue critique of the current trading order.” 

The Moral Case for Free Trade. In our own pages, Clark Packard contends that, however valid, economic arguments for free trade no longer suffice.

Passing the Buck on the Budget. Also in our pages, James C. Capretta considers what it would take to close the nation's long-term fiscal gap.

Health Bill Could Be Century’s Most Significant Policy Reform. The Washington Post’s George F. Will argues that the GOP health-care bill could be “this century's most significant domestic policy reform.” 

Hitting the Refresh Button on Net Neutrality. For National Review, Travis Kavulla applauds the FCC’s efforts to repeal net neutrality.

Occupational Licensing Hinders the American Dream. Also in RealClearPolicy, James C. Cooper, Koren W. Wong-Ervin, and Joshua D. Wright urge lawmakers to address the rising cost of occupational licensing.

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