When not being caricatured on Saturday Night Live donning the robes and skeletal mask of the Grim Reaper, Steve Bannon serves as White House chief strategist. While we may assume that Bannon does not actually dress in these robes, his presence in the White House seems just as frightening to many. He is the ideological inspiration behind the Trump administration and the symbolic presence of the alt-right’s takeover of the Republican Party. Bannon’s influence working behind the scenes of the administration is well-documented: He was reportedly a driving force behind Trump’s Muslim ban, an important writer of the Inaugural Address, and was a member of the National Security Council.
From his perch, Bannon’s ability to reframe Americans’ view of government interaction, specifically that of administrative agencies, is profound. As a former Breitbart News executive, Bannon has held fast to his penchant for dramatic verbiage, describing his – or rather, President Trump’s – “new political order” as a reclamation from the “corporatist, globalist media” and its leftist peers. Perhaps most frightening is his insistence for not the “deregulation,” but rather, the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Members of Congress have answered this call through House Resolution 26, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, which has begun this deconstruction while operating under the guise of increasing congressional oversight. Policies like H.R. 26 reveal a central flaw to the ideology now governing the White House: Bannonism may either strive to dismantle the state or utilize its ability to implement an ambitious agenda.
Many of the most important social movements in United States history owe a tremendous deal of gratitude to federal legislation. However, it is important to differentiate between the varieties of such legislative action: While some federal laws operate directly in governance, many statutes passed by the US Congress simply authorize administrative agencies to implement the law’s actual policy. These agencies, which fall under the guidance of the executive branch, are often better equipped to create and implement the nuanced details of regulations.
Although it is dependent upon the expertise of executive agencies, Congress has a history of opposing the delegation of powers to these agencies; this phenomenon is evidenced by the 1996 Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows legislators to overturn an agency’s regulations through a joint resolution within 60 legislative days of its publication, providing they elicit the full support of the two chambers and its President. But such a situation has proven extremely rare, as the CRA has only been enacted once, under President George W. Bush. The CRA, and the inaction it produced, reaffirmed the administrative autonomy of these agencies. However, with Republican control of Congress and the White House expanding, such a precedent seems up for grabs.
H.R. 26 will expand Congress’s ability to undermine the authority of administrative agencies, a clear violation of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. Unlike the CRA, which empowers Congress to repeal agency-created regulations, H.R. 26 – also known as the REINS Act – makes it more difficult to create new ones; the REINS Act only permits agencies to issue new regulations if it can “completely offset any annual costs of the new rule to the American economy.” In practice, this would mean that for every new regulation, a cut to an existing regulation must be also be implemented, which would likely be achieved through the repeal of an older regulation. Moreover, no regulation may be imposed with “an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more” without the express approval of Congress. In this sense, the law would require the infamously inefficient body to legislate twice – once to create a regulation and another time to approve that same regulation’s specificities.
At a rare moment in American politics when one party is on the verge of controlling all three branches of government, the obvious question is: “Why would Congress seek to limit the power of a friendly White House?” The answer is simple. While the law operates under the guise of increasing congressional oversight, its true intent speaks to the core tenant of Bannonism – the destruction of the administrative state. This destruction will surely aid big corporations which, through the support of institutions like the American Legislative Exchange Council, have voiced their support of the law’s deregulatory nature.
H.R. 26 would also force the repeal of numerous positive regulations, which will in turn be detrimental to citizens who enjoy entities like clean air, safer vehicles, and market protections. As Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) explains, “[The law] would basically completely tie up our government and consumer protection efforts in red tape, because every type of environmental protection and food and water protection, and everything else we do to protect people’s health and welfare would be … brought to Congress for every detail.” Indeed, the Natural Resource Defense Council estimates that the REINS Act would bring many as 100 additional measures to the Congressional floor each year. Environmental regulations are perhaps most at risk, especially considering that $100 million is not a particularly high bar when considering federal regulations. Many recent EPA regulations come with a high price tag; for example, the recent EPA rule restricting mercury emissions from power plants costs $9.6 billion to implement, though its annual benefits to public health are estimated to hover between $37 billion and $90 billion. This protectionist policy, and ones like it, runs the risk of heading to the chopping block.
The REINS Act seems to be on the verge of implementation. The law passed through the House on January 5, 2016 by a vote of 237-187, with all but two Democrats in opposition. On the campaign trail, President Trump stated that he would sign the bill should it reach his desk.
Bannon and his political ideology now sit at an intersection. He may either successfully “deconstruct the administrative state” or use that state to implement policies that truly reverse the governmental paradigm. Make no mistake, the Trump agenda is unabashedly statist. While the Trump administration may condone “alternative facts,” it does no good for any agenda, even that of Bannonism, to operate within an alternative reality. All of the major points of Trump’s agenda – from implementing travel bans to imposing new protectionist tariffs to building a wall along the US-Mexico border – require a robust executive administration to create and implement the minute details of public policy, not one that has recently been depleted by its own. If the implementation of this bold agenda is Bannon’s true end goal, it does no good to counteract the authority he now possesses. While his rhetorical aesthetic suggests that of a revolutionary, Steve Bannon is now the political establishment he once so vehemently opposed.