On our ballot this year in Idaho is HJR 5 asking whether the state Constitution should be amended to add a provision permitting the legislature to oversee agencies’ implementation of their administrative regulations. Sounds reasonable enough. What could be wrong here?
Brent Hill, senate president pro tempore, wrote a guest editorial in The Statesman recently, pitching for approval of the resolution. The good senator suggested that administrative rules in Idaho come into being through arcane procedures carried out in secret with no place for public input from the constituents.
What poppycock. Under the Idaho Administrative Procedures Act, proposed agency rules and regulations are posted or published for review, with plenty of time for anyone affected to get involved. The process provides mandatory opportunities for public participation and comment. Further, most agency boards are carefully balanced politically or by region to assure wide representation of those affected throughout the areas answering to the agency action. Any inference that these things are created by disinterested bureaucrats who put them together in the dead of night, without input from those affected and without any public participation, is total nonsense.
Even more malarkey is the notion offered by the senator that the legislative process would provide for better public participation than the administrative process. As anyone who has tried to petition the legislature on any controversial matter knows, public input at a legislative hearing is at the pure whim of the chairman; most bills go to the floor on a committee vote dictated by party caucus, without any public hearing and only minimal committee debate. They often reach the floor under suspended rules, meaning even further limitation on debate, if any at all.
The senator’s article also perked my interest because he did not present a single instance of any individual or entity suffering from the lack of this legislative authority. There were no examples of wrongs that went begging for lack of this solution, of some process that had been ignored and needed attention. With the maxim, “If it isn’t broke, why fix it?” beginning to ring in my ears, I looked a little deeper.
Sure enough, there are already laws on the books that say exactly what the proposed resolution would provide, only more precisely and with a great deal of procedural machinery. Idaho Code §§ 67-5223 and 67-5291, for example, provide for legislative review of all rule making actions taken by administrative agencies in Idaho, with specific provisions for carrying out the oversight both upon the initial adoption of the administrative action and on a year to year basis thereafter. Further, the authority of the legislature to act under these statutes in this area of ensuring that the legislative intent is carried out has been specifically upheld and approved by the Idaho Supreme Court.
But the law is just hanging by a thread, the argument goes, for some future legislature may decide to repeal or revise the existing legislation, or some future court could overturn the existing case in the blink of an eye. By putting the thing into the Constitution, this would prevent future legislatures or some future court from tinkering with it.
Ignore the practical absurdity of the argument that some future legislature might, for no reason, up and repeal a set of laws that have been in place for close to 50 years, being constantly upgraded and kept current with modernizing amendments right up to the 2014 legislature. Consider instead, if it does come up, that this is exactly the sort of decision that we expect the future legislature to be able to handle. We expect our legislature to constantly survey and improve upon the laws to make sure they continue to serve the purposes for which they are intended, and when no longer needed, we fully expect the legislature to act and toss them out.
What is it about this particular power that makes it so important that it needs to be in the Constitution? What is wrong with leaving the whole works to the legislature, with recourse to the courts where needed, as we have done for the last 124 years? If something comes up that we have not thought about here, why would we want to tie the hands of our future legislators? Is there something we are missing here?
Aha – there it is, in the last line of the proposal. The proposed amendment in HJR 5 says any action by the legislature under this new power would not be subject to gubernatorial veto. It would grant constitutional power to alter or amend any administrative action by a veto proof action that the governor could not interfere with and the courts could not touch.
This would make the legislature into a super power over all administrative agencies in the government, eviscerating the concept of balanced branches of government, and elevating the legislature above the executive branch entirely.
Here is the obvious reason this unconscionable power grab is so strongly opposed by the Governor, the Attorney General, most of the members of the bar, and a by good measure of editorial writers throughout the state. Which presents a very good reason why it should be rejected by the rest of us in November.