House passes bill to curb federal agencies' power

House passes bill to curb federal agencies' power
© Greg Nash

A GOP-backed bill to limit federal agencies’ rulemaking power passed the House on Tuesday.

The Separation of Powers Restoration Act overturns the 1984 Supreme Court decision that created Chevron deference. The legal precedent says courts must defer to agency interpretations of “ambiguous” statutes when disputes arise, unless the interpretation is unreasonable.

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The bill, which passed by a 240 to 171 vote, amends the Administrative Procedure Act to require courts to conduct a “de novo” review of all relevant questions of law instead of relying on agency interpretations.

Supporters have hailed it a way to reign in agency overreach.

While debating the bill on the floor Monday night, Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteFight breaks out between Jordan, Nadler over rules about showing video at Garland hearing The job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line MORE (R-Va.) said judicial deference under Chevron weakens the separation of powers.

“It bleeds out of the judicial branch power to interpret the law, transfusing that power into the executive branch,” he said. “And it tempts Congress to let the hardest work of legislating bleed out of Congress and into the executive branch since Congress knows judges will defer to agency interpretations of ambiguities and gaps in statutes Congress did not truly finish.”

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), who authored the bill, claims regulators are crafting rules with Chevron deference in mind, “knowing that it will give them the ability to regulate, sometimes for political gain, beyond the actual scope of the statutes that we pass as the duly elected representatives of the people.”

“By allowing unelected, unaccountable regulators to effectively grade their own papers, we are circumventing the will of the American people,” he said.

Democrats argue the legislation raises concerns about the separation of power it purports to restore. 

“By eliminating judicial deference, the bill would effectively empower the courts to make public policy from the bench, even though they may lack the specialized expertise and democratic accountability that agencies possess, through delegated authority from and oversight by the American people’s elected representatives.” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said.  

The Obama administration said senior advisors would recommend the president veto H.R. 4768 because it would unnecessarily overrule decades of Supreme Court precedent, it is not in the public interest, and it would add needless complexity and delay to judicial review of regulatory actions. 

With a veto threat looming, Democrats accused their colleagues on the other side of the aisle of wasting time on a “messaging bill.” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said.

“Despite all of the regulation and legislation needed to address pertinent issues that the American people are demanding action on right now— the Zika virus, Puerto Rico, gun violence, and gun reform legislation— there are so many other things that we could and should be working on, but instead we are enthralled here with these messaging bills that are not going anywhere,”

In a statement following the floor vote, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the bill “will restore the separation of powers among the branches of the federal government that we all rely on to protect our rights and ensure equal justice for all.”

“To protect against tyranny, America has long held to the principle that those who develop and enforce the rules should not be the same as those who judge and interpret whether there has been a violation of those rules,” he said.