In America, the administrative state traces its origins to the Progressive movement. Inspired by the theories of the German political philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Progressives like Woodrow Wilson believed that the erection of the modern state marked an “end of History,” a point at which there is no longer any need for conflict over fundamental principles. Politics at this point would give way to administration, and administration becomes the domain not of partisans, but of neutral and highlytrained experts.
America’s Founders shared a radically different understanding, an understanding based not on history but on nature. James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers that factionalism is “sown in the nature of man”; thus there will always be political conflict— which at its starkest is a conflict between justice, the highest human aspiration concerning politics, and its opposite, tyranny. This conflict between justice and tyranny occurs in every political order, the Founders believed, because it occurs in every human soul. It is human nature itself, therefore, that makes it necessary to place limits on the power of government.
Progressive leaders were openly hostile to the Constitution not only because it placed limits on government, but because it provided almost no role for the federal government in the area of administration. The separation of powers of government into three branches—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial—inhibited the creation of a unified will and made it impossible to establish a technical administrative apparatus to carry out that will. Determined to overcome this separation, one of the chief reforms promoted by early Progressives was an executive budget system—a budget that would allow Progressive presidents to pursue the will of a national majority and establish a non-partisan bureaucracy to carry it out. Congress was initially reluctant to give presidents the authority to formulate budgets, partly because it infringed on Congress’s constitutional prerogative—but also because it was still understood at the time that the separation of powers stood as a barrier to tyranny and as a protection of individual freedom. Eventually, however, Congress’s resistance weakened.
For several decades after a federal budget process was put in place, a consensus concerning the size and purposes of the federal government limited the conflict over control of public finances. Administrative functions at the national level were few, in keeping with a system of decentralized administration, an autonomous civil society, and a constitutional system that underscored the limited character of government. This would change in the 1970s, when Congress reorganized itself to become a major player in the administrative process that had arisen with the Great Society. The public consensus in support of limited government and balanced budgets began to break down. Moreover, Republican presidents representing national majorities and Democratic Congresses organized around private interests became rival forces to an extent incompatible with the pursuit of a longterm public interest.
Thus the federal budget, understood as an instrument for fueling or defueling the growth of the administrative state, became the point of control over which the political parties and the political branches fell to fighting. In the 1980s, President Reagan showed that the budget process could be used to limit spending and reduce the burden of administrative regulations. But no one of either political party, including Reagan, has been able to achieve a consensus or a political realignment concerning the purposes and level of federal spending. For much of the last 50 years, an era in which divided government has become the norm, the federal budget process, with its taxing, spending, and regulatory authority, has become the focal point of the American administrative state—the place where political institutions and public bureaucracies accommodate the various interests and constituencies seeking a share of the national wealth. As a result, it became increasingly difficult to recognize the difference between governing— making political choices based on available resources—and budgeting, or simply providing funding for programs.
Over the last decade, Congress has not even been able to pass the 13 or so appropriations bills that constitute a budget. As a result, the ongoing use of Continuing Resolutions allows the bureaucracy to determine its own needs, free from detailed control by the legislative branch. In such circumstances, those supportive of the status quo—those in the bureaucracy, Congress, or the executive branch, who support the expansion of the administrative state—have become a faction on behalf of government itself. Consequently, there has been no effective national political institution that is responsive to the unorganized electorate that has no access to the administrative state—no institution that operates on behalf of the public interest as opposed to organized interests.
In an earlier time, there was widespread agreement that political institutions should tightly control government expenditures. Budgets provided the means of limiting claims based upon available resources in a manner compatible with the long-term public good. This was possible because the federal government’s administrative functions were few. In terms of public finance, limited government meant balanced budgets in peacetime. Public spending and public debt were viewed in moral terms, as evils to be avoided so as to limit the tax burden upon the workingman. This moral understanding of spending and debt receded with the growth of the administrative state, to the point where only the lack of resources seemed to call for any limit on public spending. And in the last few years, even that sense of limitation has fallen away, as supporters of the administrative state have found that printing or borrowing money, in the absence of political constraints, can fuel almost limitless demand for public resources on behalf of their constituencies.
To return to the recent crisis, it is not altogether unreasonable under these circumstances for congressional opponents of unlimited borrowing and printing of money to suppose that the only point of opposition left to them is to refuse to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. But given that this amounts to trying to stop something that has already happened—and has happened with the participation of all the institutions of government—there is also justification for the argument that this tactic is politically illegitimate.