A gratifying feature of recent scholarship on administrative power is the resurgence of interest in the Founding. Even the defenders of administrative power hark back to the Constitution’s early history—most frequently to justify delegations of legislative power. But the past offers cold comfort for such delegation.
A case in point is Delegation at the Founding by Professors Julian Davis Mortenson and Nicholas Bagley. Not content to defend the Supreme Court’s current nondelegation doctrine, the article employs history to challenge the doctrine—arguing that the Constitution does not limit Congress’s delegation of legislative power. But the article’s most central historical claims are mistaken. For example, when quoting key eighteenth- century authors, the article makes errors of omission and commission— leaving out passages that contradict its position and misunderstanding the passages it recites. The initial goal of this Essay is therefore to explain the evidentiary mistakes in the attack on nondelegation.
This Essay’s broader aim, however, is conceptual: it points out two basic principles that have thus far received insufficient attention from both the defenders and opponents of administrative power.
First, the delegation problem can be understood more specifically as a question of vesting. To be sure, the nondelegation doctrine should be put aside—not on the grounds offered by Professors Mortenson and Bagley, but because the Constitution speaks instead in stronger terms about vesting. Thus, what are generically depicted as questions of delegation can be understood more specifically in terms of vesting and divesting. It thereby becomes apparent that Congress cannot vest in others, or divest itself of, any power that the Constitution vests in it.
Second, it is necessary to draw attention to a much-neglected idea of executive power. Recent scholarship has debated widely different conceptions of executive power—Mortenson’s view, now echoed by Bagley, being that executive power is an “empty vessel.” But all such scholarship tends to ignore another conception of executive power: that it involves the nation’s action, strength, or force. This understanding of executive power has foundations in eighteenth-century thought—as revealed even by the authors quoted by Mortenson and Bagley. Indeed, it is the conception asserted by Federalist Number 78 and evident in the Constitution itself.
A narrow historical inquiry thus points to broad conceptual lessons. Both delegation and executive power need to be reconsidered on the basis of the Constitution and its history.
Philip Hamburger is the Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, and President of the New Civil Liberties Alliance.
Copyright 2020 by Philip Hamburger
Cite as: Philip Hamburger, Delegating or Divesting?, 115 Nw. U. L. Rev. Online 88 (2020), https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1292&context=nulr_online&preview_mode=1&z=1601481946.