The Politics of Deference
Like so much else in our politics, the administrative state is fiercely contested. Conservatives decry its legitimacy and seek to limit its power; liberals defend its necessity and legality. Debates have increasingly centered on the doctrine of Chevron deference, under which courts defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of ambiguous statutory language. Given both sides’ increasingly entrenched positions, it is easy to think that conservatives have always warned of the dangers of deference, while liberals have always defended its virtues. Not so. This Article tells the political history of deference for the first time, using previously untapped primary sources including presidential and congressional archives, statements by interest groups, and partisan media sources. It recounts how the politics of deference have varied over time, even though the issue is often framed in terms that resist evolutionary analysis. As the administrative state grew in the 1970s, conservatives in Congress sought to rein in deference, while liberals defended it. These positions reversed in the 1980s, as the Reagan Administration relied on flexible readings of statutes in service of its deregulatory efforts, including in the Chevron case itself. After a period of political détente, the 2010s witnessed a resurgence of conservative opposition to and liberal support for Chevron, driven largely by the ascendance of libertarian interests in the Republican Party and the increasingly central role of administrative policymaking to the Democratic Party’s agenda.
The Article then develops a framework for understanding the shifting politics of deference. It argues that the politics of deference are the politics of regulation: for nearly a half century, partisans and interest groups have viewed doctrinal debates as inexorably tied to interests in policy outcomes. Positions about Chevron have varied based on which party controls the presidency and the ideological makeup of the federal courts. But the parties are also asymmetrically reliant on the administrative state, and thus on judicial deference. Liberals depend on deference to advance their regulatory goals in the face of an often-gridlocked Congress, while conservatives have many paths to accomplishing their deregulatory ends. The conservative turn against the so-called “deep state” and Chevron’s nonapplication in areas where conservatives most favor deference (such as national security) further exacerbate the partisan split on the doctrine. And, apart from its real-world impacts, Chevron has become a rhetorical cudgel in broader debates about the legality and legitimacy of the administrative state as a whole. Unless these dynamics change, Chevron deference will continue to have a political valence. And so long as the doctrine is understood to create winners and losers, partisans and interest groups will fight to ensure its survival or hasten its demise.