Gridlock Is No Longer The Way to Restrain Government

The phrase "do nothing Congress" has historically been used as an insult by those who want government to actually do things. To libertarians, however, and those of us who think that the government which governs best, governs least, gridlock has always been a source of comfort. Whenever one party becomes too dominant, the ability to ram through major initiatives without opposition is worrying. Since major forces in both parties basically want to expand government in different ways, it is only disagreement over specifics that keeps Big Brother in check.

This was partially by design. The systems of checks and balances, as well as the glacial operation of the Senate, was intended by the country’s founders to prevent government from growing too fast, and ensure that major changes came about through a process that was deliberative rather than reactionary. The ratification of the 17th Amendment, providing direct election of senators, accelerated legislative action slightly, but as long as the two parties maintained a roughly equal balance of power, there was not that not too many of their worst ideas would make it into law.

Of course, the founders specified three branches of government, not four; the relatively recent advent of the regulatory state is rapidly destabilizing the static equilibrium of partisan gridlock. In the last 50 years, the number of regulatory agencies in this country has ballooned to absurd proportions. It’s easy to forget that the Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Department of Transportation are all creations of the last half century, as well an alphabet soup of smaller agencies including FEMA, ICE, ATF, EPA, DEA, FEC, and OSHA. These agencies have been busy. In 2013, the Code of Federal Regulations contained 175,496 pages in 235 volumes, and dozens of new regulations are enacted every year.

The scary thing is that regulatory action happens without the approval of Congress, or even of the president. Regulators work autonomously, and since they are appointed rather than elected, they are largely immune to political pressure. The system has grown to such an extent that it runs on autopilot, requiring no intervention to continue broadening the scope and power of government.