By Steve Forbes, Forbes Staff
Overshadowed by the storm created by its abortion ruling, the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency struck a stunning, historic blow against unbridled, unaccountable bureaucratic power. The court decisively declared that the EPA had vastly exceeded its authority with regulations to force utilities to switch from fossil fuels to so-called renewables, most notably windmills and solar panels.
The Court was clear: If an unelected agency is going to issue rules that will make a major impact on society, it must have explicit authority from Congress to do so. It can’t conjure up justifications based on twisted readings of laws.
In this case, the EPA several years ago began putting arbitrary caps on greenhouse gas emissions, with the ultimate goal of making it illegal to use oil, gas or coal to generate electricity. The trouble was, there was no legal mandate to impose such sweeping changes. In fact, Congress had repeatedly refused to pass such legislation.
Frustrated, extreme environmentalists resorted to getting regulators to do what they hadn’t been able to get done through the democratic process. The EPA’s overreach wasn’t isolated. For decades federal agencies have been taking on increasing power.
Congress has gone along with this emasculation of its traditional powers because doing so has allowed lawmakers to duck accountability for unpopular decisions. In fact, many laws have been deliberately written with vague language to give bureaucrats maximum flexibility.
This neutering of Congress goes back to the late 1800s with the rise of the idea that a modern industrial society had made the Constitution obsolete and that government should be run by experts who wouldn’t get bogged down by the laborious legislative process. Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president, was a prime proponent of the belief that the Constitution, with its checks on government power, had outlived its usefulness.
This notion was recently expressed by Anthony Fauci, who said that decisions made by health experts like himself shouldn’t be subject to judicial review.
But our Founders wisely understood such concepts were recipes for tyranny. All those who exercise power should be held accountable for their actions.
Moreover, experts are not always right, including Dr. Fauci, who in the weeks before the March 2020 lockdown was saying that people should be more concerned with the seasonal flu than with the emerging coronavirus.
Power-hungry agencies aren’t about to passively accept this decision. The SEC, for example, still plans to formally issue a 500-page ruling this spring concerning listed companies and climate change. The High Court will have to render a number of decisions reinforcing what it did with West Virginia v. EPA.