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The Future of Agency Independence

Posted by on Friday, April 30, 2010 in Articles, Volume 63, Number 3, Volumes.

Independent agencies have long been viewed as different from executive-branch agencies because the President lacks authority to fire their leaders for political reasons, such as failure to follow administration policy. In this Article, we identify mechanisms that make independent agencies increasingly responsive to presidential preferences. We find these mechanisms in a context where independent agencies traditionally have dominated: financial policy. In legislative proposals for securing market stability, we point to statutorily mandated collaboration on policy between the Federal Reserve Board and the Secretary of the Treasury. In administration practices for improving securities regulation, we focus on White House coordination of, and Treasury Department involvement in, the policy of the Securities and Exchange Commission. We argue that these mechanisms undermine the conventional distinction between independent agencies and executive-branch agencies. Additionally, we argue that these mechanisms, though producing presidential involvement short of plenary control, are consistent with the strategic political interests of the President. We further contend that they promote political accountability, particularly because greater presidential control is unnecessary to align agency preferences with presidential preferences; indeed, such control might be counterproductive. In making this argument, we present a nuanced vision of accountability and update the standard justifications for independence. We also consider the constitutional implications of the new independence-accountability hybrids that we see, as well as possible applications in areas where executive-branch agencies traditionally have dominated. Our claim is not that these hybrids are part of law in any of these contexts; rather, we seek to highlight institutional relationships that outstrip conventional categories but fit with the development of the administrative state. In the future, agency independence will occur not at odds with political accountability but engaged with it along a spectrum of institutional structures.