Two Sentences

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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34 Responses

  1. zic says:

    Congressional oversight is part of the constitutional system of checks and balances. It is how the legislative branch makes sure that the executive branch is ‘tak[ing] care that the laws be faithfully executed’ and is staying within its proper constitutional boundaries.


    Congressional oversight is how the legislative branch makes sure that the executive branch faithfully administers the laws passed by Congress within constitutional boundaries, part of the system of checks and balances framed by the constitution.Report

    • zic in reply to zic says:

      (And I was trying to avoid having the laws executed, though I’m sure it would warm the cockles of many hearts, the bells tolling of each laws death a cause for celebration). Plus it’s shorter.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

        Heh, I get that. I am, though, consciously building in repeat references to actual constitutional phrasing, and the Federal Convention’s Committee on Style did not share your compunctions about executing laws.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        I thought you’d think it funny.

        What would be valuable is a style book that helps equate terminology. For instance. The Maine constitution says that land must be accessed every ten years. Reading that now, it would seem to indicate that communities have to revalue property every ten years, and that is how I’ve repeatedly heard the justification for hiring a an accessor and going through the process justified; it’s called a legal mandate due to those words.

        But when I wrote about it for one town, I went back and researched the phrase. It actually means that every ten years, towns need to make sure all properties within the town are registered; at the time the constitution was passed, most of the land was owned in big chunks, and being subdivided; and every ten years, someone had to make certain all those subdivisions of property (often from deeds going back to land grants handed out by King George,) were put on the tax roles. The actual legal trigger revaluation is the difference between current selling values and the values registered; if there’s too much difference (in the neighborhood of greater than 25%), state revenue sharing formulas get all wonky, and the revenue to the town typically declines, they may lose homestead and tree-growth income.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:


        Seems an argument for Originalism?Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist no, not an argument for; something much more subtle.

        Original meaning, as it changes through time, get’s lost, or the same words can grow to mean something else at a later time. In my example, the original meaning was simply to include properties on the roles; something that’s now required within a specific time (I think 30 days) of transferring a property. It’s a requirement met by laws passed by the legislature, and while the constitution specifies 10 years, the laws give about a month. As an argument for originalism, I would be saying the one-month requirement violates the constitution, and that would be plain silly.

        But equally silly is when the original words are divorced from their original intent, and used to tell the citizens there’s some requirement that does not legally exist.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:


        Hrmmmm, perhaps a better argument for the idea that constitutions should be re-written on a regular and not infrequent basis.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        We get into some problems there, too. I think the solution here is that of legislative history and legal precedence.

        Annotations, however, clarifying might be a nice thing.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

      Maybe. I’ll consider it.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Do I have to cite you if I use it?Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        No, consider it the editing help of friends.

        I don’t particularly like is how the legislative branch makes, it’s too vague; a series of processes that include things such as the ability to require reports and conduct investigations, hold hearings, etc. I would come up with a list defining the methods Congress uses to oversee the executive branch.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        What do you think of this?

        “Congress exercises oversight as part of the system of checks and balances to make sure that the executive branch faithfully administers the laws passed by Congress and stays within its proper constitutional boundaries.”Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        James, “As part of the system of checks and balances, Congress exercises oversight to make sure that the executive branch stays within its proper constitutional boundaries and faithfully administers the laws passed by Congress.”

        I think “staying within constitutional boundaries” is a bit more important than “faithfully administers the Congressional laws”.Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        That’s very good, but consider that it loses the sense of definition for the phrase “congressional oversight.” A definition sentence should be passive, subject (congressional oversight) is (what it means). It’s a state of being.Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        And I have some concerns about the phrase staying within constitutional boundaries, unless used very carefully. The web of checks and balances on constitutional boundaries is complex, and this sentence risks putting too much emphasis on Congress as the check, when it’s just part of the web of checks and balances.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        But oversight is also an action–it’s something Congress does, and it seems to me that writing it actively helps emphasize that, and makes it read more interestingly than it does as just a passive definition. Or do you think I’m off-base there?

        [Edit: I get that it looks suddenly like I haven’t actually defined “oversight” per se, but indirectly I think I have, and the specific methods of it follow in the remainder of the section.]Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        Then it works; I wasn’t sure, so pointed that out.

        I’m more concerned with the boundaries phrase creating the proper emphasis and suggesting the web of relationships here.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Do you think the “part of the system of checks” language doesn’t sufficiently emphasize that it’s not the whole thing? (This is a case of “I know what I’m saying, so it’s hard to see how it really reads to others.)

        Edit: Here’s the latest iteration.

        Congress exercises oversight as one part of the system of checks and balances to make sure that the executive branch stays within its proper constitutional boundaries and faithfully administers the laws.

        And once I get this one down, there’s only 10,997 more sentences to worry over in just this same way. It’s a wonder I ever get a damn thing done.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to zic says:

      I think James’ shorter sentences are simpler and more clear than your modified one.Report

  2. Kim says:

    You ought to save such egregious examples of unclear thinking and communications. A hilarious afterword: “Why I wrote this book: To save you from the following…”Report

  3. Kolohe says:

    The problem is not that their one sentence is unclear, the problem is that it’s wrong.Report

  4. Michael Cain says:

    Does this still work in the situation where Congress delegates an enormous amount of the detailed writing of the law to the executive branch? When Congress seems to have delegated to the courts the responsibility for determining if such regulations fit within the grant of authority Congress made? For example, CO2 regulation. 40 years or so ago Congress made a vague (but broad) grant of authority to the executive to regulate air pollutants. Over the course of the last decade, we had: (1) one administration that said CO2 wasn’t covered; (2) a Supreme Court that said CO2 was covered; (3) a second administration that said they could regulate CO2 very broadly, from an enormous number of stationary sources (including pretty much every large hotel or hospital in the country), but weren’t going to regulate most of them at the current time; and (4) the Supreme Court saying they could only regulate a particular group of stationary sources, which was basically power plants. The last one with various parties arguing all sorts of different “Congressional intent.”

    Where was Congressional oversight during this debacle? They were unable or unwilling — take your choice — to exercise any oversight whatsoever.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

      There are two issues here, both of which I cover in the writing, although in separate sections. One is the issue of delegation, which I explain as a combination of 1) Congress recognizing the limits of its technical knowledge, and letting the agencies fill in the details as long as they remain within Congress’s policy targets, and 2) Congress ducking the tough details because it’s easy to get your constituents to cheer for clean air but also easy to piss them off when they find out how the details will affect them (at which point Congressmembers can sigh and point the finger at the agencies).

      The other issue, of using the courts, actually has a special name,“fire alarm oversight” from a theory developed thirty years ago. It’s really not so much that Congress is letting the Courts do their work, but that they’re enlisting the citizenry in the work of oversight by giving them the authority to challenge the agencies in the courts. In part this is cost-shifting, but in part it’s also strengthening oversight because 330 million sets of eyes will catch more than 535 sets of eyes will.Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        It’s also a state’s rights issue. This ruling came from Massachusetts vs. The Environmental Protection Agency, and Mass was joined by several other down-wind states, including my own.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Ahem, federalism, not states’ rights. 😉Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        Yes, you’re correct. That’s liberal dyslexia; thinking that ‘rights’ mean the right to not have people upstream pollute your stuff; that the right to control stuff doesn’t mean the right to not be accountable for downstream externalities.Report

      • Zic, I think you’re thinking about the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which is about downwind effects of sulfur- and nitrous-oxides and fine particulates, settled in EPA v. EME Homer this year. Massachusetts was about regulating mobile sources of CO2. CO2 isn’t a problem immediately downwind, it’s a problem as it mixes globally. I was talking about Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA on regulating CO2 emissions from stationary sources.Report

  5. aaron david says:

    Have you written a textbook yet? Is that what you are working on? I love the idea of a libertarian Poly Sci textbook.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to aaron david says:

      The textbook is what I’m working on. It’s not really libertarian, though, except to the extent I emphasize the Framers’ concern for abusive government as a necessary foundation for understanding their design, and emphasize how much more actively involved it is in our lives than it was once upon a time. But that’s really inner historian collaborating with my political scientist side–I don’t give a libertarian critique.Report

  6. Vikram Bath says:

    Congress is constitutionally essential to responsible bureaucracy because the key to government responsibility is legislation.

    Did you cherry-pick for an awful sentence, or is the whole thing like that? Even if I don’t have my cynical hat on, I’m left wondering what “responsible bureaucracy” and “government responsibility” are. Are they different from one another? Why is the key legislation? Is legislation sufficient and necessary for “government responsibility”?

    Also, “constitutionally essential”. So, it wouldn’t be essential but for the Constitution saying it is essential? I don’t recall the Constitution mentioning anything about responsible bureaucracy and what is essential and what is optional.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Vikram Bath says:


      Didn’t cherry-pick. As I was looking through my textbooks to see if there were aspects of the topic that I wasn’t thinking of at the moment, that section-opening sentence caught my eye.

      I wouldn’t say the whole book is quite that bad, but, well, it’s not good. Academics are known for bad writing–our ideas are so important that everyone should be focused on that, instead of on the way they’re written.

      Of course that’s bullshit, because if we have great ideas we want others to understand it’s our responsibility to communicate them so they can, not their responsibility to struggle through our abstruse verbiage to see if just maybe they might agree. And if our target audience is college frosh, it’s even more important that we write clearly and directly. That doesn’t mean talking down to them, as some texts do, but–as I see it–writing to them as though they’re reasonably intelligent adults who just haven’t learned yet about this particular thing.

      But of course the real target audience for textbooks is not the readers, but the profs who assign the books. So books are sold based on their particular conceptual approach, whether they have lots of pretty graphs, and the ancillary tools available on the publisher’s website. The profs don’t read the books–they don’t need to. The most they do is skim to see if Topic X is covered, and what sequence the topics are covered.Report

  7. Will H. says:

    I have been studying agency law, and that deals with this very sort of thing; but also shows the judicial branch exercises some oversight of the executive.
    I just got through briefing a case on whether fighting in the workplace may incur an injury “arising out of” or “in the course of” employment (The answer: Maybe). I’m still sitting here is the reason I’m reading this.
    Agencies (the “bureau” part of the “bureaucracy”) are within the control of the executive (as with policy statements, etc.), and established by enabling acts; which is what I believe these sentences are referring to.

    I believe the use of concrete examples would provide more clarity.
    I think your time is better spent thinking up good examples rather than re-writing the same sentences over and over.Report