How Far Can Congress Delegate Its Legislative Authority?

The Supreme Court this morning announced that in its next term it will hear oral argument in a case called Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads, which asks whether Congress, when it passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, unconstitutionally delegated its legislative power to a private entity—in this case, Amtrak. The non-delegation doctrine, grounded in the separation of powers, arises from the very first word of the Constitution, after the Preamble: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States ….” (emphasis added). Taken at face value, that clear a statement would seem to preclude much of the “lawmaking” that goes on every day in the 300 and more executive branch agencies to which Congress over the years has delegated vast regulatory authority. Unfortunately, the Court long ago held otherwise, unleashing the modern executive state, indulged no more assiduously that by President Obama with his resort to “pen and phone” as he wills his agencies to action, the will of Congress often notwithstanding.

This case, however, challenges the next step in undermining the constitutional doctrine: again, whether Congress can delegate its lawmaking authority to a private entity. In time, one hopes, the case may sow the seeds for the Court’s revisiting the main form of legislative delegation, if only by putting the issue in play. That was at least implicit in the opinion below from the D.C. Circuit, written by the irrepressible Judge Janice Rogers Brown and joined by Senior Judges Stephen Williams and David Sentelle, each of whom has been a presence at Cato. In fact, it was only three weeks ago that Judge Williams was here, commenting on Professor Philip Hamburger’s new book entitled, appropriately, Is Administrative Law Unlawful?—the broad question at issue here.

As with so many administrative law cases, DOT v. AAR involves a complex tangle of agencies and authorities that the reader will be taxed to untangle. But Judge Brown put the principle of the matter plainly: “While often phrased in terms of an affirmative prohibition [as with rights], Congress’s inability to delegate government power to private entities is really just a function of its constitutional authority not extending that far in the first place. In other words, rather than proscribing what Congress cannot do, the doctrine defines the limits on what Congress can do.” This is one to watch.