Photo courtesy of Marty Hahne

Photo courtesy of Marty Hahne

Cartoon star Bullwinkle the Moose had a running gag in which he tried to pull a rabbit out of a hat and ended up facing a tiger, rhino, lion, or a bear. It’s a good thing he’s not working the nightclub circuit today. The permitting process would be a nightmare.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently sent a letter to several magicians telling them that they needed to draft a “disaster plan” for the rabbits they pull out of hats. They must satisfy the federal government that they’re prepared to protect their rabbit from fires, floods, tornadoes, power failures, and so forth.

One magician is getting professional help in drafting his plan. It’s already 28 pages and counting. Of course, the USDA’s rule cannot be ignored. While magicians can make rabbits disappear, the USDA can make the magicians disappear, or at least go out of business, without the licenses it issues. Still, there’s a bit of relief in sight. After Heritage blogged about it and The Washington Post reported on the disaster regulation, the USDA backed off—for now.

>>> Read one magician’s story: The USDA Rabbit Police

Yet the federal government still requires magicians to have a license to own a bunny. That nicely illustrates the size, scope, and basic nature of the administrative state.

In The Washington Post article, David Fahrenthold explained how a bill becomes a law these days: “First Congress passes a bill, laying out the broad strokes. Then bureaucrats write regulations to execute those intentions. And then, often, they keep on writing them. And writing them.”

In this case, lawmakers drafted a vague measure aimed at protecting animals used in lab research. Congress added to it a few years later to cover animals used in large exhibitions, such as circuses and zoos. Since then bureaucrats have been perfecting the trick of expanding it without anyone noticing. The original law was four pages. Today the USDA has 14 pages just for rabbits.

Power has in effect been transferred from the representative, constitutional institutions—Congress, the President, and the courts—to administrative agencies and bureaucrats. A “fourth branch” of government, unelected and unaccountable to voters.

No lawmaker voted to force magicians to have a “disaster plan” for a rabbit. The USDA decided that when it issued a rule in 2006. The agency won’t say which of its bureaucrats wrote this particular regulation. That’s a far cry from the congressional process, where lawmakers stamp their names on laws they support.

Rabbits, as the Australians once learned, breed quickly and can eventually devastate a country. So can regulations. Americans need to learn a difficult trick: We must take control of the administrative state, before it overwhelms us all.