The separation-of-powers doctrine is foundational to the structure of the federal government under the United States Constitution. Under it, each branch is granted certain powers that may not be encroached upon by the other branches. But what if one branch tries to give that power to another?
Congress, for example, is the only branch with the power to make laws. But Congress often delegates rulemaking authority to administrative agencies within the executive branch, even though the executive branch is only charged with executing the law.
The United States Supreme Court in United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936), considered how much discretion Congress could give to the president without running afoul of the separation-of-powers doctrine, which forbids Congress from delegating its essential lawmaking authority to anyone.
The case involved a joint resolution passed by Congress banning the sale of weapons to countries involved in the Chaco War. By this measure, Congress hoped to encourage a cease fire. The resolution made the ban contingent on the U.S. president issuing an executive order to activate the ban.
After President Roosevelt issued the proclamation, a U.S. weapons manufacturer named Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. was indicted for selling guns to Bolivia. The Supreme Court upheld the resolution on the ground that Congress could constitutionally grant the president broad discretion in matters of foreign policy.
Today, Curtiss-Wright remains among the Court’s strongest validations of the president’s plenary power over foreign affairs.
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