The (Willingly) Fettered Executive: Presidential Spinoffs in National Security Domains and Beyond

We typically think of the Executive as power aggrandizing. For that reason, we believe it engages in institutional re-design efforts primarily for instrumental gain – to maximize authority and discretion where the President lacks control over particular agencies or responsibilities; or, where she simply wants more.

It would therefore defy conventional wisdom were the Executive to take pains to restructure the institutional architecture in the absence of limitations placed on presidential control in administrative or regulatory contexts already largely exempt from the APA, civil-service protections, public scrutiny, and judicial review. Even more surprising would be were the Executive to engage in re-design efforts that resulted in less presidential control and greater accountability safeguards.

Yet two increasingly important examples – neither of which has been carefully studied or well understood – suggest exactly that (and much more). The Executive already enjoyed unfettered discretion with respect to (1) the CIA developing new technologies for its spies and (2) the President scrutinizing and blocking foreign investments that threaten U.S. national and economic security. Nevertheless, it created In-Q-Tel, a private venture-capital firm to incubate intelligence technologies; and, it empowered the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to handle most responsibilities associated with screening proposed foreign investments. In doing so, the Executive incurred a host of legal and organizational constraints on its ability to direct and control these two critical functions.

This Article sees In-Q-Tel and CFIUS as embodiments of a counterintuitive and often overlooked trend: the Executive relinquishing control over essential national-security responsibilities, and doing so on its own initiative. Delegating responsibility to In-Q-Tel and CFIUS – rather than retaining it within the CIA and the Oval Office, respectively – serves to limit presidential discretion in contexts where political stewardship would be destructive and illegitimate. Whether this was the Executive’s intent all along or an unintended consequence of institutional reorganization, the ways in which In-Q-Tel and CFIUS bear the marks of novel forms of accountability and self-restraint are innovative, compelling, and, most importantly, suggestive of a new chapter of thinking about institutional design, separation of powers, and the optimal amount of Executive control.