Who really wields power in Washington?  The December 3rd opening sketch of Saturday Night Live, featuring Fred Armisen as a chastened President Obama, offered an answer to the question. 

SNL‘s Obama shared his insight, gained over the last three years, that the presidency is not truly a powerful post, but merely a “ceremonial position . . . a majestic figurehead.” Disabused of any pretensions of strength and influence, he groused that the President is not even among the top five power players, and well behind Grover Norquist, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.

Real-life House Republicans, however, see power inordinately vested in mostly anonymous bureaucrats. Last week, GOP stalwarts (along with a smattering of Democrats) approved two bills (whose enactment is improbable) that would drastically curtail the rulemaking authority of Executive-Branch agencies. 

Another Republican, perhaps America’s highest paid historian, Newt Gingrich, suggested that immigration power — the authority to pick the lucky individuals who can stay in the U.S. and identify the forlorn others who must leave — should be vested in community boards, fashioned after the Selective-Service-System citizen boards of World War II vintage.  Given the difficulty of mustering jury panels, it’s hard to see how Gingrich’s boards might ever be staffed, unless the government were to hire the unemployed (something Newt would no doubt view as anathema).

Others, such as Yale law professor, Peter Schuck, have suggested that Adam Smith’s invisible hand manipulate the levers of power, proposing that America “experiment with . . . new ways to improve visa allocation . . . [whereby the] government could auction some visas to the highest bidders.”  Similar bunkum, which I have suggested would “amount . . . to a latter-day slave auction,” has been proposed by Pia Orrenius, a research officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at Agnes Scott College.

A more serious suggestion of how the federal government should exercise power appeared in this weekend’s Wall St. Journal in an Op-Ed (“Starting Over with Regulation [-] Why are government rules so complex? A guide to a radically simpler system“). The editorial’s author, attorney Philip Howard, chairs the nonpartisan government-reform group, Common Good, which has posted a longer version of his Op-Ed. Howard proposes that the arcane minutia of “bureaucratic detail could be scrapped, and law would become understandable again.”  He suggests that the “focus would shift from complicated rules to desired results: clean air, safe food, honest business.”

I’m not sure I agree with Howard’s proposal, but one thing he says strikes me as having the accuracy of a drone missile: 

The standard objection to such a simplified system is that people would take advantage of the leeway: Companies would ignore their obligations, and bureaucrats would abuse their powers. The only answer to these fears is accountability. There’s no need to trust business: Give inspectors presumptive authority to decide whether or not a business is meeting its regulatory obligations. Nor do we need to trust officials. The system would need to include ways to overrule regulators who are unreasonable and to fire them if they consistently show bad judgment. (Bolding added.)

Under today’s immigration procedures, however, there is no way for the public to pressure the administrative agencies to fire immigration adjudicators (power-wielders) who “consistently show bad judgment.”  Whether from within the USCIS Administrative Appeals Office, the Regional Service Centers, or U.S. consulates or embassies abroad, power is exercised anonymously.  In the case of USCIS, decisions denying benefits are putatively “issued” in the name of the boss of the particular unit.  The particular decision-maker is almost never identified.  While consular officers deny visas in face-to-face fashion (albeit with officer and visa applicant separated by bullet-proof glass), the refusing officers’ names are not revealed. 

I recognize, to be sure, the dangers that some immigration adjudicators might face if their identities were known. But just as in the recent debate in the New York Times (“Anonymity and Incivility on the Internet“), some degree of transparency and accountability is necessary if bad behavior is to be prevented and rogue officers disciplined. 

anonymous adjudicator.jpgPerhaps, an official governmentally-maintained but secret registry of immigration adjudicator noms de plume can be established. I think that if someone must put one’s own name on the decisions he or she makes, then the legal scholarship, application of law to facts, reasoning and justice of each decision will inevitably improve.  At the very least, the public would be able to spot the bad apples (through the good offices of reporting agencies such as Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — a data-distribution service of Syracuse University — which has long provided information on decisions of individual immigration judges).  With metrics on trends of mistaken adjudications, the public could pressure the immigration agencies to re-educate wayward power-wielders, or if unrepentant, demand their removal (from the job, not the country).