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Law as Treaties?: The Constitutionality of Congressional-Executive Agreements


This article seeks to resolve the debate over the use of a statutory method for approving international agreements in place of the supermajority process required by the Constitution's Treaty Clause. These "congressional-executive agreements," which require only simple majorities in Congress and presidential signature, have become the instrument of choice for entry into some of the nation's most significant international obligations, such as the WTO and NAFTA. Some, such as Bruce Ackerman and David Golove argue that statutes and treaties are interchangeable because a "constitutional moment" occurred at the end of World War II (in which "We the People" non-textually amended the Constitution to allow this alternate process). Their critics, such as Laurence Tribe, suggest that the text and structure of the Constitution forbids the use of a statutory method to enter into significant international agreements. Standard foreign relations law doctrine, by contrast, consistently has defended interchangeability, but with little success at explaining how interchangeability is consistent with the constitutional text and structure. This Article provides a constitutional justification for the congressional-executive agreement, one consistent with the text, structure, and history of the Constitution. It shows a clear dividing line that demarcates the situations in which treaties must be the sole instrument of national policy, and those that can be dealt with by the congressional-executive agreement. This Article articulates a theory of treaties that explains the record of practice by the political branches, rather than making normative claims derived simply from different theories of constitutional interpretation. Practice suggests that complete interchangeability ought to be rejected because it creates severe distortions in the American public lawmaking system. Allowing statutes to completely replace treaties eliminates the restrictions upon Congress's enumerated powers and undermines the separation of powers in foreign affairs. Nonetheless, congressional-executive agreements still have a legitimate place in the constitutional conduct of foreign policy, because their use preserves Congress's constitutional powers over matters such as international commerce. Treaties still retain a vital role by allowing the nation to enter into agreements that regulate matters outside of Congress's enumerated powers. Congressional-executive agreements allow the political branches to maintain a separation between treatymaking and lawmaking at a time when the distinction between international and domestic is rapidly disappearing.

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