Politics & Policy

The Trump Cabinet: Bonfire of the Agencies

Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt in 2014. (Reuters photo: Nick Oxford)
Trump’s nominees challenge the out-of-control administrative state.

Democrats spent the first two decades of the post–Cold War era rather relaxed about Russian provocations and revanchism. President Obama famously mocked Mitt Romney in 2012 for suggesting that Russia was our principal geopolitical adversary. Yet today the Dems are in high dudgeon over the closeness of the secretary-of-state nominee, Rex Tillerson, to Vladimir Putin.

Hypocrisy aside, it is true that, as head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson made major deals with Russia, received Russia’s Order of Friendship, and opposed U.S. sanctions. That’s troubling but not necessarily disqualifying. At the time, after all, Tillerson was acting as an agent of ExxonMobil, whose interest it is to extract oil and make money.

These interests do not necessarily overlap with those of the United States. The relevant question is whether and how Tillerson distinguishes between the two and whether as agent of the United States he would adopt a tougher Russia policy than he did as agent of ExxonMobil.

We don’t know. We shall soon find out. That’s what confirmation hearings are for.

The Left has been in equally high dudgeon that other Cabinet picks appear not to share the mission of the agencies they have been nominated to head. The horror! As if these agency missions were somehow divinely ordained. Why, they aren’t even constitutionally ordained. The Department of Education, for example, was created by President Carter in 1979 as a payoff to the teachers’ unions for their political support.

Now, teachers are wonderful. But teachers’ unions are there to protect benefits and privileges, not necessarily to improve schooling. Which is why they zealously defend tenure, protect their public-school monopoly, and reflexively oppose school choice.

Conservatives have the odd view that the purpose of schooling — and therefore of the Department of Education — is to provide students with the best possible education. Hence Trump’s nominee, Betsy DeVos, is a longtime and passionate proponent of school choice, under whom the department will no longer be an arm of the teachers’unions.

She is also less likely to allow the department’s Office for Civil Rights to continue appropriating to itself the role of arbiter of social justice, micromanaging everything from campus sexual mores to the proper bathroom assignment for transgender students. If the mission of this department has been to dictate policy best left to the states and localities, it’s about time the mission was changed.

The most incendiary nomination by far, however, is that of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. As attorney general of Oklahoma, he has joined or led a series of lawsuits to curtail EPA power. And has been upheld more than once by the courts.

Pruitt’s nomination is a direct attack on the insidious growth of the administrative state.

Pruitt has been deemed unfit to serve because he fails liberalism’s modern-day religious test: belief in anthropogenic climate change. They would love to turn his confirmation hearing into a Scopes monkey trial. Republicans should decline the invitation. It doesn’t matter whether the man believes the moon is made of green cheese. The challenges to EPA actions are based not on meteorology or theology, but on the Constitution. The issue is that the EPA has egregiously exceeded its authority and acted as a rogue agency unilaterally creating rules unmoored from legislation.

Pruitt’s is the most important nomination because it is a direct attack on the insidious growth of the administrative state. We have reached the point where EPA bureaucrats interpret the Waters of the United States rule — meant to protect American waterways — to mean that when a hard rain leaves behind a pond on your property, the feds may take over and tell you what you can and cannot do with it. (The final rule excluded puddles — magnanimity from the Leviathan.)

On a larger scale, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan essentially federalizes power generation and regulation, not coincidentally killing coal along the way. This is the administration’s end run around Congress’s rejection of Obama’s proposed 2009–10 cap-and-trade legislation. And that was a Democratic Congress, mind you.

#related#Pruitt’s nomination is a dramatic test of the proposition that agencies administer the law, they don’t create it. That the legislative power resides exclusively with Congress and not with a metastasizing administrative bureaucracy.

For some, this reassertion of basic constitutionalism seems extreme. If so, the Obama administration has only itself to blame. Such are the wages of eight years of liberal overreach. Some legislation, like Obamacare, will be repealed. Some executive orders will be canceled. But most important will be the bonfire of the agencies. We may soon be secure not just in our puddles but in our ponds.

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