As Democrats debate the merits over legislative versus administrative action on topics ranging from climate change to gun control, they face a fundamental decision: technocracy or democracy. As Bloomberg reported on July 18, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) stated that “the potential to enact [climate] legislation is dead … This then frees up the President to use the full powers of the executive branch.” The Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace expressed support for executive action in lieu of legislation on climate change. Congress did pass climate legislation after all, but what about in the future, especially if Republicans gain control of the House?
Calls from progressives for unilateral action by agency bureaucrats is perplexing, given their explicit support for democracy and hostility to hierarchies, the latter identified by Thomas Costello et al in the 2021 monograph Left-wing Authoritarianism. Normally believers in “the will of the people,” many progressives believe that climate change is such an imminent and pressing concern that it must be addressed by any means necessary—without respect to the people’s will. However appealing this reasoning may be, prima facie, progressives ought to embrace democratic processes if they seek to implement lasting policy change.
First, progressives are right to have such an affinity to democracy and representative government. Elections allow citizes to provide crucial feedback to evaluate their representatives’ policies. In this way, voting functions politically the way profit-and-loss accounting functions economically. Without democracy, it is much harder to hold political decision makers responsible for the consequences of their actions. Moreover, in the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” For policy areas with wide-ranging economic and political implications, one certainly hopes that there will be mechanisms in place to deliver feedback on the efficacy and popularity of governmental interventions.
There are other reasons to endorse it. Laws passed by Congress are much harder to do away with and can have much greater economic and societal impact. For example, regardless as to one’s appraisal of the Affordable Care Act, it has had major implications for the U.S. health care system, and will be in place for the foreseeable future despite widespread Republican opposition.
Rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding climate change, on the other hand, have been schizophrenic and ephemeral. Under the Trump administration, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler replaced the Clean Power Plan, issued by Administrator Gina McCarthy during the Obama Administration, with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. The Biden administration has reversed course again, restoring the Clean Power Plan (which was then curtailed by the Supreme Court). These 180-degree policy pivots ought to disabuse progressives of their belief in administration action and reinforce their commitment to legislation.