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This essay seeks to add to the ongoing effort of defining accountability in practical terms by presenting an inconspicuous but directly on-point case study about administrative accountability. This is the story of the United States Department of Agriculture farmer committee system, which seems to be the one and only experiment in federal administrative elections. The experiment, however, has been a failure both as a matter of practical policy and constitutional validity. Indeed, in advance of legislative debate on the 2023 Farm Bill, a USDA advisory committee publicly recommended that Congress abolish the committee system. Nevertheless, there is much to learn about the meaning of accountability from these failures, and the lesson, in short, is this: Majoritarianism alone is neither a constitutionally sound form of accountability nor an effective model for good governance. Regardless of whether we call it accountability, legitimacy, democracy, or simply good governance, only when majoritarianism pairs with other tools for meaningful public engagement and oversight--individualism, reason giving, and deliberation--does the administrative state achieve “democratic accountability.”

The next section of this essay describes the history, purpose, and powers of the USDA farmer committees in more detail. Section III will explain the legal and policy failures of this experiment in using direct elections to bring accountability to the administrative state. Section IV present solutions to these failings. Section V will conclude by further exploring democratic accountability in light of the constitutional problems with and solutions to electoral administration.

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