Don't bet on this being the dawn of a new era of enlightened congressional rule. The Supreme Court has ruled that most, if not all legislative vetoes are unconstitutional. The breadth of the decision has generated a lot of loose talk. The Nader and Common Cause types are wrong, the doomsayers are wrong, and--unfortunately-- those predicting massive reform of Congress are wrong.
The conundrum: the tasks of modern government are so complicated that we must have powerful agencies, but the stakes involved in exercising those powers are so great that many people, especially in Congress, worry about leaving broad discretion in the hands of un- elected agency officials. The worriers argue that unelected means unaccountable, if not downright pointy-headed.
Appointed officials in the agencies, however, often behave very politically, trying to please their seniors and the president. That usually means doing what they believe to be politically correct, which is what supporters of the legislative veto want anyway. Ask Rita Lavelle about political responsiveness.
On the other hand, the accountability of Congress leaves much to be desired. Notwithstanding past "reforms," which revisionists think may have produced chaos, committee and party leaders wield tremendous power over legislation, both directly and through the calendar and procedures--which are rarely used neutrally. To whom are these legislative leaders accountable? Perhaps to their state or district constituents; perhaps in extreme circumstances to a caucus of their party colleagues; but certainly not to the nation as a whole. It's a myth that Congress is substantially more accountable than the agencies.
Another myth is that so-called special interests could, until this landmark case, have a field day agitating for Congress to overrule by legislative veto what the expert agency had decided to do in carrying out a duly legislated mandate. But this is a strange argument. Special interests routinely have their way with the executive branch as well, and hardly seem inept at using campaign contributions and other wiles to work their will in the normal law-making process. Then, too, there's no reason to believe that it will always be legislators trying to backslide on statutory commitments to clean air, consumer protection and so forth. Administrations come and go, as do influential members of Congress.
More mythology: agencies are more expert than the legislature. Usually they are, but it ain't necessarily so. Most controversial choices Congress delegates to the agencies are really imponderables, like how much worker safety to purchase by regulating industry. It's simply a question of whether, when all the studies and public comments are in, the policy judgment weighing various interests and risks will be made by head-scratchers who were appointed (aided by civil servant staffs) or by head- scratchers who were elected (aided by appointed staffs).
Moreover, Congress has developed more and more of a capacity to become expert: burgeoning personal and committee staffs, a phalanx of support organizations like the Congressional Budget Office, armies of lobbyists proferring reports and fact sheets, subcommittees whose more talented members can become quite expert over time, and so forth. The highly competitive and ambitious staffs on the Hill are not demonstrably less able than the career staffs in the executive branch. (Strikes fear in the heart, doesn't it?) Anyway, the telephones work. Congress is institutionally capable of making sound decisions in complicated matters, or at least it has the means at its disposal. And this potential compares reasonably well with that of agency officials, who too frequently come to office with mostly empty heads, and must rely on tenured staffs of uneven quality.
The question is political will, not institutional capacity. Lacking either the will, foresight or resources to make hard choices when writing statutes, Congress could well continue to make broad delegations of power to agencies. There are plenty of devices available to channel agency discretion (elimination is impossible and undesirable): oversight hearings, appropriations bills, reauthorization, early warning report-and- wait schemes to give time for a congressional response to proposed executive action and, of course, legislation specifically to overrule an agency decision.
Using its formal and informal powers to control the executive branch will require important changes in the way Congress does business. A few unaccountable members shouldn't be able to bottle up a bill seeking to reverse an agency action; procedural devices that shield members from hard substantive choices should be rooted out; delays engineered to achieve substantive ends should be harder to come by. Time devoted to nonsense, like birthday tributes, should be devoted to things that matter.
Many observers are saying the court's decision will create a new, improved political environment in which Congress takes more responsibility for the business of government. But that's far from certain, and it will take a kind of political will the want of which made the legislative veto a useful device. If those members who often voted for legislative veto provisions were serious about accountability, they will have their work cut out for them.