Donald Trump loves drama. His tweets more often provoke feuds than illuminate policies. To many of its observers, the Trump Presidency is also a nail-biter of a different sort: will the separation-of-powers survive him? Or is a constitutional “crisis” (whatever that means) afoot? All this hand-wringing occurs amidst a multi-front assault on the administrative state. An executive order to strangle new regulations. Legislative attempts to “REIN” agencies in. Scholarly invocations of the Star Chamber. Bureaucrats, we are told, are lazy, overpaid, and power-hungry.
Jon Michaels’ new book, Constitutional Coup, couldn’t be a timelier counterweight. It is a full-throated paean to the modern administrative state — an earnest call not only to expand, but to redeem, the bureaucracy. For Michaels, pax administrativa (his term) is far from the headless aberration critics charge. Rather, it is the very buttress to state power contemplated by the Constitution. I’m not writing a traditional book review here, so I’ll dispense with a chapter-by-chapter overview and simply commend a close read. There’s a lot to like: colorful prose, a rich historical critique of privatization, novel jurisprudential insights. Michaels’ main claim, however, is disarmingly simple: the familiar separation-of-powers between the executive, courts, and Congress has been replicated within agencies. Political appointees, career staff, and civil society act as intra-agency rivals: the first group as presidential agents; the second as reason-giving judicial analogues; and the last as a pluralistic legislative assembly of sorts. The conflicts between them ensure the checks-and-balances a constitutional democracy demands.
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