A Hiatus in Soft-Power Administrative Law: The Case of Medicaid Eligibility Waivers


Administrative law is fundamentally a regime of soft power. Congress, the President, administrative agencies, civil servants, and the courts all operate within a broad consensus for rational, good-faith decisionmaking. Congress grants agencies discretion, and courts and civil servants defer to agencies’ political leadership based largely on the expectation that the latter are seeking to honor statutes’ purposes. That expectation of prudential restraint also allays concerns about delegations of legislative power. When the executive systematically disregards that expectation and seeks singlemindedly to maximize achievement of its policy objectives, deference’s justification breaks down.

Across agencies, the Trump administration has disregarded the assumptions on which administrative law’s soft power consensus depends. Its waivers allowing states to deny Medicaid to otherwise eligible low-income people unable to find employment exemplifies this disregard. Exploiting a sweeping delegation of authority to test new ways to achieve Medicaid’s goal of providing health care coverage, this administration has instead sought to achieve very different goals, from legislation that Congress has rejected. The waiver applications themselves estimate substantial increases in the numbers of uninsured people.

Ignoring the administration’s disregard of the longstanding administrative law consensus could deter future Congresses from valuable delegations of discretion. Permanently abandoning the deferential soft-power model would seriously undermine future governance. Instead, courts and civil servants should treat this period as a hiatus in consensus for good-faith decisionmaking. Courts should suspend deference and other aspects of soft-power jurisprudence. And civil servants should comply with political officials’ lawful directions but should remain steadfastly truthful in their words and actions.

About the Author

Professor of Law, Georgetown University

By uclalaw