Federal Agencies: A Powerhouse in Government
September 02, 2016
By Jared Fenton, C’17
The United States Government is founded on many ideas, but one of its most important is the separation of powers, referring to the fact that each of the three branches of government – the Executive, Judiciary, and Legislative – is able to limit the power of the others. This separation of power helps to prevent the U.S. Government from becoming a monarchy. In grade school, many learn that the Executive branch refers to the President and Vice President, the Judiciary branch refers to the Supreme Court, and the Legislative branch refers to Congress. As seen in the graphic below, federal agencies are left out of discussion. However, in my time so far on Capitol Hill, I have found federal agencies to hold a significant power of their own.
Let us take the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an example. The EPA has power over Congress in terms of realizing the laws it passes. Just recently, Janet McCabe, the Acting Assistant Administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation of the EPA, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program. This program was started in 2006 with the dual goals of achieving “greater energy independence and security,” and increasing “production of clean renewable fuels.’’ Congressed passed legislation they believed would help achieve these goals, stipulating that the U.S. must produce 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. Even though those like economist Howard Gruenspecht have reported that these goals are literally impossible to achieve, the EPA has nevertheless tried to implement policy to achieve them. However, McCabe did note in her testimony that the EPA has the power to update the goals Congress has set for fuel production. This power comes as the result of a special waiver Congress granted the EPA. The EPA has extensively utilized this waiver, and will actually gain full control over the RFS program after 2022. So, even though it was Congress that gave the EPA these powers in the first place, now that the EPA has them they are able to limit the will and power of Congress in the realm of renewable fuel, forcing Congress to pass a new bill (which is quite difficult to do) if they want to gain any power back. 
Additionally, the EPA checks the power of Congress through its power of implementation. Regardless of Congress’s intent with its RFS legislation, the EPA has the power to determine how this law is actually applied in the real world. Specifically, the EPA decided that this would be through a program in which all refineries are required to blend a certain amount of gasoline fuel with ethanol-based “green fuel” each year. While some have benefited quite a bit from this statute, such as those farmers who have doubled and tripled their incomes due to the new demand for corn (a key ingredient in ethanol-blended fuel production), others have suffered, including refineries that only produced diesel fuel in the past, but now produce ethanol-blended fuel as well. These refineries lack both the structure to produce ethanol-blended fuel and the lack market for it, since their clients demand diesel fuel. Moreover, this new blended fuel is rumored to hurt the engines of many consumer motorcycles, cars, and boats. Therefore we see that with the power of implementation, a power Congress does not have, federal agencies show themselves to have significant power separate from those parts of government generally thought to have it. 
Although at times overlooked, federal agencies like the EPA have great power. Sure, Congress has the power to draft laws, but without organizations like the EPA, zero of these laws would ever reach implementation in the real world. In this way, throughout my time here on Capitol Hill, it has become quite clear that the separation of powers extends far beyond the President, Vice President, Supreme Court, and Congress.
 “The Renewable Fuel Standard – Implementation Issues.” Energy and Commerce Committee. N.p., 22s June 2016. https://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings-and-votes/hearings/renewable-fuel-standard-implementation-issues.
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