Powers, But How Much Power? Game Theory and the Nondelegation Principle

54 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2016 Last revised: 21 Nov 2018

See all articles by Sean Sullivan

Sean Sullivan

University of Iowa College of Law

Date Written: November 15, 2018


Of all constitutional puzzles, the nondelegation principle is one of the most perplexing. How can a constitutional limitation on Congress’s ability to delegate legislative power be reconciled with the huge body of regulatory law that now governs so much of society? Why has the Court remained faithful to its intelligible principle test, validating expansive delegations of lawmaking authority, despite decades of biting criticism from so many camps? This Article suggests that answers to these questions may be hidden in a surprisingly underexplored aspect of the principle. While many papers have considered the constitutional implications of what it means for Congress to delegate "legislative" power, few have pushed hard on the second part of the concept: what it means for an agency to have legislative "power."

Using game theory concepts to give meaning to the exercise of legislative power by an agency, this Article argues that nondelegation analysis is actually more complicated than it appears. As a point of basic construction, a delegation only conveys legislative power if it (1) delegates lawmaking authority that is sufficiently legislative in nature, and (2) gives an agency sufficient power over the exercise of that authority. But, again using game theory, this Article shows that an agency’s power to legislate is less certain than it first appears, making satisfaction of this second element a fact question in every case.

This more complicated understanding of the nondelegation principle offers three contributions of practical significance. First, it reconciles faithful adherence to existing theories of nondelegation with the possibility of expansive delegations of lawmaking authority. Second, it suggests a sliding-scale interpretation of the Court’s intelligible principle test that helps explain how nondelegation case law may actually respect the objectives of existing theories of nondelegation. Third, it identifies novel factors that should (and perhaps already do) influence judicial analysis of nondelegation challenges.

Keywords: constitutional law, nondelegation, legislative, power, principal agent, game theory, law and economics

JEL Classification: K19, C72

Suggested Citation

Sullivan, Sean, Powers, But How Much Power? Game Theory and the Nondelegation Principle (November 15, 2018). 104 Virginia Law Review 1229 (2018), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2720723 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2720723

Sean Sullivan (Contact Author)

University of Iowa College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

HOME PAGE: http://sean-p-sullivan.com

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