Nondelegation originalism is having its moment. Recent Supreme Court opinions suggest that a majority of Justices may be prepared to impose strict constitutional limits on Congress’s power to delegate policymaking authority to the executive branch. In response, scholars have scoured the historical record for evidence affirming or refuting a more stringent version of nondelegation than current Supreme Court doctrine demands. Though the debate ranges widely, sharp disputes have arisen over whether a series of apparently broad Founding-era delegations defeat originalist arguments in favor of a more demanding modern doctrine. Proponents—whom I call “nondelegationists”—argue that these historical delegations can all be explained as exceptions to an otherwise-strict constitutional limit.
As this Article shows, it is highly doubtful that the Founding generation thought of delegation in such categorical terms. The evidence nondelegationists cite in favor of their preferred classifications—systematically assessed here for the first time—is remarkably thin. More importantly, this Article highlights how, for the Founding generation, building the administrative capacity needed to fulfill the national government’s responsibilities was not a quest to trace out hard constitutional boundaries between the branches. It was a dynamic and improvisational experiment in governance, in which Congress sought to mobilize its limited resources to meet the myriad challenges the new nation faced.
To recapture early delegation’s dynamism, this Article focuses on the Remission Act of 1790. It gave the Secretary of the Treasury broad and unreviewable authority to remit statutory penalties for violations of federal law governing maritime commerce—power a strict nondelegation principle would not have allowed. This arrangement was not the obvious choice, and Congress considered vesting this power in a range of institutional actors before settling on the Secretary. Yet despite deep concerns over the wisdom—and even the constitutionality—of concentrating too much power in the hands of a single executive branch officer, Congress repeatedly affirmed this discretion, and the early Secretaries (including Alexander Hamilton) did not hesitate to use it.
This was a pattern Congress repeated elsewhere, making early delegations of varying breadth across the spectrum of federal administration. This experiment in governance was not easy, nor was it free from controversy. Disputes over how and where to allocate governmental authority were frequent and contentious. But if legislative debates occasionally sounded in a constitutional register, overwhelmingly they turned on the kinds of practical considerations that animated Congress’s deliberations over the Remission Act. When it came to designing a workable administrative system for the new federal government, delegation’s boundaries were apparently quite expansive.
Delegation, Administration, and Improvisation,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol97/iss1/5