Like other myths and fairy-tales meant to conceal and excite, California’s school children are taught to believe that there are three branches of government. In fact, there clearly are four.

Though a putative part of the executive branch, agencies are the constituent parts in an administrative state that constitutes a de facto fourth branch of government, with quasi-judicial, executive, and legislative powers that they exercise with great autonomy. Keeping this fourth branch of government in check is an effort that the Legislature increasingly is willing to defer.

That made it something of a surprise when members of the Assembly Insurance Committee recently called the California Department of Insurance to task for an obscure proposed regulatory action. In a June 8 letter from Chairman Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, the committee expressed concerns about Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones’ decision to pursue policy changes that would limit the availability of auto insurance discounts.

Specifically, committee members urged the commissioner to abandon his attempt to deprive Californians of so-called “affinity group” discounts. The letter makes it known they feel the department lacks legal authority to undertake the change and that it would not be in the best interests of their diverse constituents.

The concern is warranted. The CDI’s course of action is inexplicable, in light of its claim to be defending the public’s interest. What’s particularly encouraging about the committee’s letter is that it demonstrates interest not only in the agency’s operational and legislative activity, but also its regulatory activity. Effective governmental oversight demands attention to both.

While it’s yet to be seen whether the CDI will heed the committee’s advice, the panel’s willingness to go on record with its concerns should counsel caution. The quasi-legislative power that department wields is not exercised in a vacuum.

The power of the fourth branch of government can be intimidating, both to citizens and to legislators. But questioning agencies’ purported expertise is vital to ensure the actual will of the people, and not simply that of agency staff, is ensconced in law. Californians have every reason to hope that Daly’s letter is a sign of more oversight to come.

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