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Balance of Power
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"The imbalance of knowledge between Congress and executive agencies leads to an imbalance of power and vice versa," writes M. Anthony Mills.

Congress’ knowledge deficit renders it powerless

Mills is associate vice president of policy at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan and pro-free-market public policy research organization.

"Knowledge is power." The phrase is attributed to Francis Bacon, the so-called father of modern science, who believed that scientific knowledge enables the mastery of nature and the "relief of man's estate." Although Bacon himself was interested primarily in scientific and technological progress, the connection between knowledge and power is also a political problem — and one that is particularly pertinent today.

Knowledge has always been necessary for making laws and political decisions. But in modern times, scientific knowledge in particular has become indispensable for governing — and not only because modern states make decisions about overtly scientific matters like research funding, environmental protection and space exploration. Administering public policies, from health care and welfare to regulation and taxation, relies on various types of scientific knowledge. And it is, for the most part, carried out by executive agencies staffed by experts.

Over time, such agencies have acquired legislative-like powers — the authority, in effect, to make law by interpreting deliberately vague or broad statutes. One rationale for Congress' delegation of this power to the executive branch has to do with knowledge: Congress lacks the requisite expertise, whereas executive agencies do not. This is in part Congress' own fault, since it has, over time, depleted its own in-house expertise — by, for example, reducing expert staff and dismantling the Office of Technology Assessment. The imbalance of knowledge between Congress and executive agencies leads to an imbalance of power and vice versa.

This is problematic on three counts.

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