Evading the Treaty Power?: The Constitutionality of Nonbinding Agreements
11 Florida Int'l U. L. Rev. 371 (2016)
17 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2016
Date Written: May 12, 2016
The U.S. Constitution states that the President can make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, provided two thirds of Senators present concur. This high threshold for consent reflects the framers’ concern that treaties not be too easy to make. No one said the President alone could make treaties; many emphasized the contrary. James Wilson, for example, declared that “[n]either the President nor the Senate, solely, can complete a treaty; they are checks upon each other, and are so balanced as to produce security to the people”; Hamilton made similar observations in The Federalist.
In modern times, however, Presidents on their own authority have made international agreements that look much like treaties. 2015 provides two examples. First, the President negotiated an agreement with Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the European Union regarding Iran’s nuclear development. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and announced in July 2015, its principal goal was to limit Iran to non-military nuclear development in return for lifting U.S. and international economic sanctions on Iran. Second, the President joined with leaders of over 150 nations to produce the Paris Agreement on climate change, with a final version announced in December 2015. The Agreement attempted to promote and coordinate controls on carbon emissions in response to concerns over human-caused global warming. Both agreements appear to involve substantial commitments by the United States, but neither will depend on approval by the Senate (or Congress).
The President contends that these agreements are nonbinding under international law and so can be made on the President’s sole constitutional authority. This essay assesses that claim. It generally agrees with the President’s basic proposition but raises concerns about the application of that proposition to the Iran and Paris Agreements. It concludes that without adequate safeguards this approach can provide the President with substantial ability to evade the constitutional checks on the treaty-making power.
Keywords: treaty making power, presidential power, nonbinding agreements, Iran agreement, Paris agreement
JEL Classification: K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation