Tag: Congress

Trump and the Emoluments Clause: What Congress Needs to Do

This morning President-elect Donald Trump announced via Twitter that “I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses. Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!”

With that announcement, Trump takes one important step toward addressing both the wider problem of conflicts of interest, and within it the narrower problem—of distinct constitutional dimensions—of the Trump Organization’s complex ongoing dealings with foreign governments. On those latter entanglements, I argue in a new Philadelphia Inquirer piece that under the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, Congress will affirmatively need to “decide what it is willing to live with in the way of Trump conflicts”—and it should draw those lines before the fact, not after. Excerpt:

…That clause reads in relevant part: “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] , shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”…

The wording of the clause itself points one way to resolution: Congress can give consent, as it did in the early years of the Republic to presents received by Ben Franklin and John Jay. …

…it can’t be good for America to generate a series of possible impeachable offenses from a running stream of controversies about whether arm’s-length prices were charged in transactions petty or grand. …

There is no doubt that doing the right thing poses genuine difficulties for Trump not faced by other recent presidents. If he signals that he understands the nature of the problem, it would not be unreasonable to ask for extra time to solve it.

For reasons that Randall Eliason outlines in this helpful explainer, Emoluments Clause issues do not map well onto the concept of “bribery.” (Payments can violate the Emoluments Clause even if made with honest intent on both sides; bribery, for its part, is subject to a separate ban.) Removing himself from day-to-day management should help Trump avoid some violations of the Clause (for example, it will become less likely that a foreign state firm will wind up compensating him for his time). Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA has suggested that if the President-elect refuses to divest ownership of his business he at a minimum “needs to create an insulation wall separating his political activities from those of the organization. Such walls were formerly known in colloquial legal speech as ‘Chinese walls.’”

Even if Trump does that, serious Emolument Clause issues will remain, especially those surrounding favorable treatment that a presidentially owned business may not have sought out but which may nonetheless constitute “presents.” Congress should expect to ramp up the expertise it can apply to these problems, and (absent divestiture) assign ongoing committee responsibility to tracking them. And it should issue clear guidelines as to what it is willing and not willing to approve. Such a policy will not only signal that lawmakers are taking their constitutional responsibilities seriously, but could also benefit the Trump Organization itself by clarifying how it needs to respond if and when foreign officials begin acting with otherwise inexplicable solicitude toward its interests.

Expanded and adapted from Overlawyered.

Ambiguities in U.S. Trade Laws Imperil Our Economy and Constitutional Order

In yesterday’s Investor’s Business Daily, Club for Growth President David McIntosh and I had a short piece on the perilous implications of President-elect Trump’s threats to unilaterally withdraw the United States from our trade agreements or impose punitive and wide-ranging tariffs on imports. The economic effects of Trump’s promises have been explored at length (see, e.g., this new one on NAFTA and Texas), but most trade law experts are just now digesting the legal issues. What we’re finding is, to use the technical term, a big mess that could have unforeseen economic and constitutional implications in the Age of Trump. As we note:

For almost a century, American trade policy has been formed and implemented by a successful “gentlemen’s agreement” between Congress and the president. Congress delegated to the president some of its Article I, Section 8 powers to “regulate Commerce with foreign nations” so that the president may efficiently execute our domestic trade laws. The president negotiates and signs FTAs with foreign countries, while Congress retains the ultimate constitutional authority over international trade, for example by approving or rejecting agreements or by amending US trade laws.

As a result of this compromise, the United States has entered into 14 Free Trade Agreements with 20 different countries and imposed targeted unilateral trade relief measures — all without significant conflict between Congress and the President.

The question now is whether Mr. Trump, as president, could and should single-handedly implement his trade agenda on Jan. 20, 2017 without any congressional action.

The IBD op-ed scratches the surface of these legal issues, but below are more details on just a few of the many ambiguities lurking in U.S. trade law—ambiguities that, if not properly clarified, could be exploited by a protectionist U.S. president against the original intent of the Congress that delegated their constitutional authority over trade policy under the (incorrect!) assumption that the president would always be the U.S. government’s biggest proponent of free trade.

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Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

Playing the China Card Wisely Is Obama’s Last Best Chance to Sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “strategic pivot” to Asia, which – in 2009 – heralded U.S. intentions to extricate itself from the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan and to reassert its interests in the world’s fastest-growing region. After six years of negotiations, the comprehensive trade deal was completed last year and signed by its 12 charter members earlier this year. But the TPP must be ratified before it can take effect – and prospects for that happening in 2016 grow dimmer with each passing day.

One would assume TPP ratification a policy priority of President Obama. After all, he took office promising to restore some of the U.S. foreign policy credibility that had been notoriously squandered by his predecessor. If Congress fails to ratify the agreement before Christmas, Obama will leave office with American commercial and strategic positions weakened in the Asia-Pacific, and U.S. credibility further diminished globally.  The specter of that outcome would keep most presidents awake at night.

In Newsweek today, I put most of the blame for this precarious situation on a president who, throughout his tenure, has remained unwilling to challenge the guardians of his party’s anti-trade orthodoxy by making the case for trade liberalization generally, or the TPP specifically:

Superficially, one could blame election-year politics and a metastasizing popular antipathy toward trade agreements for the situation, but the original sin is the president’s lackluster effort to sell the TPP to his trade-skeptical party and the American public. In the administration’s division of labor, those tasked with negotiating the TPP kept their noses to the grindstone and brought back an agreement that reduces taxes and other protectionist impediments to trade…

How to Dissuade Congressional Action

A recent Cato policy forum on European over-regulation took an unexpected turn when my friend and colleague Richard Rahn suggested that falling prices and increasing availability of writing paper may have been responsible for increasing the number and length of our laws and regulations. (Dodd-Frank is longer than the King James’ Bible, to give just one obvious example.)

Goodness knows what will happen when new legislation stops being printed on writing paper and starts appearing only on the internet. (I never read Apple’s “terms and conditions,” do you?)

Anyhow, Richard’s hypothesis will soon be put to the test in Great Britain, where the lawmakers have just decided to stop writing the Acts of Parliament on calfskin – a tradition dating back to the Magna Carta – and use paper instead. Will the length of British laws increase, as Rahn’s hypothesis predicts? We shall see.

In the meantime, Americans remain stuck with a Niagara Falls of laws and regulations that our lawmakers generate every year. Many distinguished scholars have wondered how to slow our Capitol Hill busybodies down a little. The great Jim Buchanan had some good ideas, but the most effective, if not harshest, means of preventing over-regulation was surely developed by the Locrians in the 7th century BC.

As Edward Gibbon narrates in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “A Locrian who proposed any new law, stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and if the law was rejected, the innovator was instantly strangled.” (Vol. IV, chapter XLI; V pp. 783–4 in volume 2 of the Penguin edition.)

Ours is, of course, an enlightened Republic, not an iron-age Greek settlement on the southern tip of Italy. The life and limb of our elected officials must, therefore, remain safe. But, what if instead of physical destruction, a failed legislative proposal resulted in, so to speak, “political death?” What if the Congressman or Senator, whose name appeared on a bill that failed to pass through Congress, were prevented from running for reelection after their term in office came to an end? 

Just a happy thought before the weekend.

How Congress Should — and Shouldn’t — Bolster School Choice

This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “Expanding Education Opportunity through School Choice.” As I’ve written before, there are lots of great reasons to support school choice policies, but Congress should not create a national voucher program:

It is very likely that a federal voucher program would lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. Once private schools become dependent on federal money, the vast majority is likely to accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

Congress’s Diminishing Power of the Purse

One of the most important aspects of the separation of powers is the commitment of the power of the purse to the legislative branch. It constrains the executive and the judiciary from engaging in unilateral action without congressional approval. If there’s no approval, there will be no money to pay for the executive action, as the rule would have it. Unsurprisingly, with the advent of the administrative state and an aggressive executive, this power has been significantly diminished in modern times

Indeed, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides expressly that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts,” to the exclusion of any other branch’s exercise of those powers. The upshot: the separation of powers, especially Congress’ power over appropriation priorities, is eroded as executive agencies and executive allies have access to funds not appropriated by Congress.

In order to keep their power of the purse intact, Congress originally enacted the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute in 1849. That law is now codified today in Title 31 of the U.S. Code. It requires all government officials in receipt of funds, such as settlements from civil or criminal enforcement, to deposit that money with the Treasury. As a structural point, the law effectively aims at stopping executive agencies from self-funding through enforcement or other receipts of money. It maintains their dependence on Congress for their annual appropriation.

However, the Justice Department has found a way around this law to fund political allies on the left or executive priorities without congressional approval: settlement agreements. As Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel recently reported, “[i]t works like this: The Justice Department prosecutes cases against supposed corporate bad actors. Those companies agree to settlements that include financial penalties. Then Justice mandates that at least some of that penalty money be paid in the form of “donations” to nonprofits that supposedly aid consumers and bolster neighborhoods.”

The trick here is that Justice never “receives” the funds within the meaning of the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute, and thus has no requirement to deposit the funds it exacts from defendants with the Treasury—the donations are made directly without money ever being received into Justice’s hands.

Despite the fact that Justice Guidance discourages the practice because “it can create actual or perceived conflicts of interest and/or other ethical issues”—and, indeed, it was almost banned in 2008 due to perceptions of abuse—Justice continues to push this method of funding political allies and favored priorities of the executive. In fact, “[i]n 2011 Republicans eliminated the Housing Department’s $88 million for ‘housing counseling’ programs,” Strassel reports, “which spread around money to groups like La Raza. Congress subsequently restored only $45 million, and has maintained that level. . . [B]ank settlements pour some $30 million into housing counseling groups, thereby essentially restoring all the funding.”

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