Executive Discretion in Administering the Government's Rights and the Delegation Problem

30 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2020

See all articles by John C. Harrison

John C. Harrison

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: September 3, 2020

Abstract

Governments regulate private conduct. They also exercise rights of ownership and contract that are like those of private people. From the founding to today, executive officials have exercised substantial policy discretion in managing the government's own resources. That practice is consistent with the text and structure of the Constitution. Administering the government's resources, and making policy judgments in doing so, is at the core of carrying the law into execution. The executive itself does not have power to create programs that employ federal resources such as federal funds, but when Congress creates such a program, it may leave many important choices to the executive. At most, the Constitution requires that Congress provide an intelligible principle to guide that discretion. The non-delegation principle concerning regulation of private conduct may be more demanding than that, but the exercise of the government's own rights is a distinct category of executive activity. The practical scope of this principle is substantial. Federal spending today is a major tool through which Congress affects behavior. Like spending and contracting, federal regulation through licensing takes the form of the administration of the government's resources. Licensing of broadcasting, for example, rests on the principle that the airwaves are public and not private property, and that private people may use that resource only on terms the government sets. Licensing schemes put the government in the position of an owner, able to give licenses that permit conduct that otherwise would violate the owner's rights. Congress therefore may give executive officials substantial discretion when it creates a licensing system. The important question is the extent of Congress's power to put the government in the position of an owner. Two well-known early examples of delegation to the executive, the Indian Commerce Act of 1790, and the regulation of steamboat safety, took the form of licensing. The historical evidence does not indicate that proponents of those systems justified delegation on the grounds suggested here. It does suggest that steamboat licensing was understood to be based on federal control of the public right of navigation of interstate waterways. The executive function of administering the government's resources is a distinct category of executive activity from the standpoint of constitutional structure, and the principles that apply to delegation in other contexts need not apply in that context.

Keywords: constitutional law, separation of powers, executive power

Suggested Citation

Harrison, John C., Executive Discretion in Administering the Government's Rights and the Delegation Problem (September 3, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3686204 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3686204

John C. Harrison (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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