WASHINGTON -- It is high time Americans heard an argument that might turn a vague national uneasiness into a vivid awareness of something going very wrong. The argument is that the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (EESA) is unconstitutional.
By enacting it, Congress did not in any meaningful sense make a law. Rather, it made executive branch officials into legislators. Congress said to the executive branch, in effect: "Here is $700 billion. You say you will use some of it to buy up banks' 'troubled assets.' But if you prefer to do anything else with the money -- even, say, subsidize automobile companies -- well, whatever."
FreedomWorks, a Washington-based libertarian advocacy organization, argues that EESA violates "the nondelegation doctrine." Although the text does not spell it out, the Constitution's logic and structure -- particularly the separation of powers -- imply limits on the size and kind of discretion that Congress may confer on the executive branch.
The Vesting Clause of Article I says, "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in" Congress. All. Therefore, none shall be vested elsewhere. Gary Lawson of Boston University's School of Law suggests a thought experiment:
Suppose Congress passes the Goodness and Niceness Act. Section 1 outlaws all transactions involving, no matter how tangentially, interstate commerce that do not promote goodness and niceness. Section 2 says the president shall define the statute's meaning with regulations that define and promote goodness and niceness and specify penalties for violations.
Surely this would be incompatible with the Vesting Clause. Where would the Goodness and Niceness Act really be written? In Congress? No, in the executive branch. Lawson says that nothing in the Constitution's enumeration of powers authorizes Congress to enact such a statute. The only power conferred on Congress by the Commerce Clause is to regulate. The Goodness and Niceness Act does not itself regulate, it just identifies a regulator.
The Constitution empowers Congress to make laws "necessary and proper" for carrying into execution federal purposes. But if gargantuan grants of discretion are necessary, are the purposes proper? Indeed, such designs should be considered presumptively improper. What, then, about the Goodness and Niceness Act, which, as Lawson says, delegates all practical decision-making power to the president? What about EESA?
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