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Publication Date

Summer 1999




Cato Institute




In 1690, John Locke wrote that legislators “can have no power to transfer their authority of making laws and place it in other hands.” A century later, in 1789, the federal Constitution provided that “all legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” A little more than a hundred years later, in 1892, the Supreme Court declared in Field v. Clark: “That Congress cannot delegate legislative power to the President is a principle universally recognized as vital to the integrity and maintenance of the system of government ordained by the Constitution.”

In 1989, nearly a century after Field v. Clark, the Supreme Court in Mistretta v. United States upheld an essentially unconstrained grant of power enabling an administrative agency to set guidelines for federal criminal sentences, offering the stark observation that “our jurisprudence has been driven by a practical understanding that in our increasingly complex society, replete with ever changing and more technical problems, Congress simply cannot do its job absent an ability to delegate power under broad general directives.”

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