Congress Underestimated: The Case of the World Bank
University of Michigan Law School
March 11, 2013
107 American Journal of International Law 517 (2013)
U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 323
Using the World Bank as a case study, this article casts doubt on the empirical foundation for the claim that international organizations undermine democracy by undermining legislatures, at least in the United States. The article also argues that the conventional wisdom about the executive branch’s dominance in foreign affairs may be overstated — especially outside the context of wars and crises. Over the past forty years, Congress has undertaken persistent and often successful efforts to shape day-to-day U.S. participation in the World Bank, a key international organization.
Congress has relied on a combination of tools to accomplish this. It has adopted legislation instructing the U.S. representative at the World Bank to oppose specified categories of loans and pursue specified policies. It has credibly threatened to cut appropriations. And it has stepped up its monitoring of both the World Bank and the executive branch’s interactions with it. The President has objected that Congress’s legislated instructions contravene constitutional limits on its authority. But these protestations have not held Congress back. The Treasury Department—the executive branch agency that implements U.S. policy with respect to the Bank—has diligently followed Congress’s instructions to ensure that Congress continues to provide necessary appropriations.
By focusing on Congress’s ongoing role in influencing the World Bank’s operations, this article addresses a perplexing oversight in the literature concerning the democratic accountability of international organizations in the United States. To the extent that this literature considers Congress at all, it has focused narrowly on two discrete points: Congress’s role in the initial decision to authorize U.S. participation in international organizations and its role in implementing new international legal obligations that these organizations generate. But limiting the inquiry to these discrete points misses much of what is important. First, international organizations are durable institutions with long lives; the World Bank, for example, has been around since 1945. Concerns about democratic accountability do not wane over time. To the contrary, they are likely to grow more acute. Second, many international organizations, including the World Bank, conduct their mandated activities without generating new international norms that bind their member states, with the consequence that their activities do not raise the question of whether implementing legislation is necessary.
The full text of the article is available on the author's biography page of the University of Michigan Law School website.
Keywords: foreign affairs, congress, world bank, international organizations, democratic deficit
JEL Classification: K33
Date posted: March 12, 2013 ; Last revised: December 17, 2013