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Super Basic Administrative Law

I’ve spent a large chunk of my life studying and working within the environmental law realm, which is a subset of administrative law.

Have I lost you yet? I know this stuff is dense and the terminology sucks. Bear with me – I’ll make it short. Knowing the bare-bone basics of administrative law is important for understanding the U.S.

The U.S. government has three branches (Judicial, Legislative, and Executive), and the Executive Branch is more than just the President. The Executive Branch is also made up of many agencies, like the Department of Justice, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and many more.

Federal agencies further their missions by interpreting the laws that are passed by Congress (Legislative Branch) to make their own rules and regulations. This process of Executive Branch agencies interpreting the laws passed by Congress to make rules and enforce them is what administrative law is all about. It creates a ton of government policy and it all happens outside of elections and the Congressional “how a bill becomes a law” process.

For example, Congress passed the original version of the Clean Air Act in the 1960’s, and then made major changes to it in 1970, 1977, and 1990. But other than that, all of the Clean Air Act rules that power plants, car manufacturers, and other sources of air pollution must follow have been created and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, with oversight by the courts (Judicial Branch). All of Obama’s climate change policy has occurred within the administrative law process.

The last layer I will add on today: although the agency must follow the purpose of the law they are charged with interpreting, the President, as the head of the Executive Branch, appoints the heads of the agencies. Therefore, the President has significant influence on what actions the agency takes during his term.

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