International Agreements Without Senate Approval


The capacity of the United States to enter into agreements with other nations is not exhausted in the treaty-making power. The Constitution recognizes a distinction between “treaties” and “agreements” or “compacts” but does not indicate what the difference is.392 The differences, which once may have been clearer, have been seriously blurred in practice within recent decades. Once a stepchild in the family in which treaties were the preferred off-spring, the executive agreement has surpassed in number and perhaps in international influence the treaty formally signed, submitted for ratification to the Senate, and proclaimed upon ratification.

During the first half-century of its independence, the United States was party to sixty treaties but to only twenty-seven published executive agreements. By the beginning of World War II, there had been concluded approximately 800 treaties and 1,200 executive agreements. In the period 1940-1989, the Nation entered into 759 treaties and into 13,016 published executive agreements. Cumulatively, in 1989, the United states was a party to 890 treaties and 5,117 executive agreements. To phrase it comparatively, in the first 50 years of its history, the United States concluded twice as many treaties as executive agreements. In the 50-year period from 1839 to 1889, a few more executive agreements than treaties were entered into. From 1889 to 1939, almost twice as many executive agreements as treaties were concluded. Between 1939 and 1993, executive agreements comprised more than 90% of the international agreements concluded.393

392 Compare Article II, § 2, cl. 2, and Article VI, cl. 2, with Article I, 10, cls. 1 and 3. Cf. Holmes v. Jennison, 39 U.S. (14 Pet.) 540, 570-572 (1840). And note the discussion in Weinberger v. Rossi, 456 U.S. 25, 28-32 (1982).

393 CRS Study, xxxiv-xxxv, supra, 13-16. Not all such agreements, of course, are published, either because of national-security/secrecy considerations or because the subject matter is trivial. In a 1953 hearing exchange, Secretary of State Dulles estimated that about 10,000 executive agreements had been entered into in connection with the NATO treaty. “Every time we open a new privy, we have to have an executive agreement.” Hearing on S.J. Res. 1 and S.J. Res. 43: Before a Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 83d Congress, 1st Sess. (1953), 877.

One must, of course, interpret the raw figures carefully. Only a very small minority of all the executive agreements entered into were based solely on the powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief and organ of foreign relations; the remainder were authorized in advance by Congress by statute or by treaty provisions ratified by the Senate.394 Thus, consideration of the constitutional significance of executive agreements must begin with a differentiation among the kinds of agreements which are classed under this single heading.395

Executive Agreements by Authorization of Congress

Congress early authorized officers of the executive branch to enter into negotiations and to conclude agreements with foreign governments, authorizing the borrowing of money from foreign countries396 and appropriating money to pay off the government of Algiers to prevent pirate attacks on United States shipping.397 Perhaps the first formal authorization in advance of an executive agreement was enactment of a statute that permitted the Postmaster General to “make arrangements with the Postmasters in any foreign country for the reciprocal receipt and delivery of letters and packets, through the post offices.”398 Congress has also approved, usually by resolution, other executive agreements, such as the annexing of Texas and Hawaii and the acquisition of Samoa.399 A prolific source of executive agreements has been the authorization of reciprocal arrangements between the United States and other countries for the securing of protection for patents, copyrights, and trademarks.400

394 One authority concluded that of the executive agreements entered into between 1938 and 1957, only 5.9 percent were based exclusively on the President’s constitutional authority. McLaughlin, The Scope of the Treaty Power in the United States—II, 43 MINN. L. REV. 651, 721 (1959). Another, somewhat overlapping study found that in the period 1946-1972, 88.3% of executive agreements were based at least in part on statutory authority; 6.2% were based on treaties, and 5.5% were based solely on executive authority. International Agreements: An Analysis of Executive Regulations and Practices, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 95th Cong., 1st Sess. (Comm. Print) (1977), 22 (prepared by CRS).

395 “[T]he distinction between so-called ‘executive agreements’ and ‘treaties’ is purely a constitutional one and has no international significance.” Harvard Research in International Law, Draft Convention on the Law of Treaties, 29 AMER. J. INT. L. 697 (Supp.) (1935). See E. Byrd, supra at 148-151. Many scholars have aggressively promoted the use of executive agreements, in contrast to treaties, as a means of enhancing the role of the United States, especially the role of the President, in the international system. See McDougal & Lans, Treaties and Congressional-Executive or Presidential Agreements: Interchangeable Instruments of National Policy (Pts. I & II), 54 YALE L. J. 181, 534 (1945).

Reciprocal Trade Agreements.—The most copious source of executive agreements has been legislation which provided authority for entering into reciprocal trade agreements with other nations.401 Such agreements in the form of treaties providing for the reciprocal reduction of duties subject to implementation by Congress were frequently entered into,402 but beginning with the Tariff Act of 1890,403 Congress began to insert provisions authorizing the Executive to bargain over reciprocity with no necessity of subsequent legislative action. The authority was widened in successive acts.404 Then, in the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934,405 Congress authorized the President to enter into agreements with other nations for reductions of tariffs and other impediments to international trade and to put the reductions into effect through proclamation.406

The Constitutionality of Trade Agreements.—In Field v. Clark,407 legislation conferring authority on the President to conclude trade agreements was sustained against the objection that it attempted an unconstitutional delegation “of both legislative and treaty-making powers.” The Court met the first objection with an extensive review of similar legislation from the inauguration of government under the Constitution. The second objection it met with a curt rejection: “What has been said is equally applicable to the objection that the third section of the act invests the President with treaty-making power. The Court is of opinion that the third section of the act of October 1, 1890, is not liable to the objection that it transfers legislative and treaty-making power to the President.”408 Although two Justices disagreed, the question has never been revived. However, in B. Altman & Co. v. United States,409 decided twenty years later, a collateral question was passed upon. This was whether an act of Congress which gave the federal circuit courts of appeal jurisdiction of cases in which “the validity or construction of any treaty . . . was drawn in question” embraced a case involving a trade agreement which had been made under the sanction of the Tariff Act of 1897. Said the Court: “While it may be true that this commercial agreement, made under authority of the Tariff Act of 1897, § 3, was not a treaty possessing the dignity of one requiring ratification by the Senate of the United States, it was an international compact, negotiated between the representatives of two sovereign nations and made in the name and on behalf of the contracting countries, and dealing with important commercial relations between the two countries, and was proclaimed by the President. If not technically a treaty requiring ratification, nevertheless, it was a compact authorized by the Congress of the United States, negotiated and proclaimed under the authority of its President. We think such a compact is a treaty under the Circuit Court of Appeals Act, and, where its construction is directly involved, as it is here, there is a right of review by direct appeal to this court.”410

396 1 Stat. 138 (1790). See E. Byrd, supra at 53 n.146.


398 Id. at 38-40. The statute was 1 Stat. 232, 239, 26 (1792).

399 McClure at 62-70.

400 Id. at 78-81; S. Crandall, supra at 127-31; see CRS Study, supra at 52-55.

401 Id. at 121-27; W. McClure, supra at 83-92, 173-89.

402 Id. at 8, 59-60.

403 § 3, 26 Stat. 567, 612.

404 Tariff Act of 1897, § 3, 30 Stat. 15, 203; Tariff Act of 1909, 36 Stat. 11, 82.

405 48 Stat. 943, § 350(a), 19 U.S.C. §§ 1351-1354.

406 See the continued expansion of the authority. Trade Expansion Act of 1962, 76 Stat. 872, § 201, 19 U.S.C. § 1821; Trade Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 1982, as amended, 19 U.S.C. §§ 2111, 2115, 2131(b), 2435. Congress has, with respect to the authorization to the President to negotiate multilateral trade agreements under the auspices of GATT, constrained itself in considering implementing legislation, creating a “fast-track” procedure under which legislation is brought up under a tight timetable and without the possibility of amendment. 19 U.S.C. §§ 2191-2194.

407 143 U.S. 649 (1892).

408 143 U.S. at 694. See also Dames & Moore v. Regan, 453 U.S. 654 (1981), in which the Court sustained a series of implementing actions by the President pursuant to executive agreements with Iran in order to settle the hostage crisis. The Court found that Congress had delegated to the President certain economic powers underlying the agreements and that his suspension of claims powers had been implicitly ratified over time by Congress’ failure to set aside the asserted power. Also see Weinberger v. Rossi, 456 U.S. 25, 29-30 n.6 (1982).

409 224 U.S. 583 (1912).

410 224 U.S. at 601.

The Lend-Lease Act.—The most extensive delegation of authority ever made by Congress to the President to enter into executive agreements occurred within the field of the cognate powers of the two departments, the field of foreign relations, and took place at a time when war appeared to be in the offing and was in fact only a few months away. The legislation referred to is the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941,411 by which the President was empowered for over two years—and subsequently for additional periods whenever he deemed it in the interest of the national defense to do so—to authorize “the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, or the head of any other department or agency of the Government,” to manufacture in the government arsenals, factories, and shipyards, or “otherwise procure,” to the extent that available funds made possible, “defense articles”—later amended to include foodstuffs and industrial products—and “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of,” the same to the “government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States,” and on any terms that he “deems satisfactory.” Under this authorization the United States entered into Mutual Aid Agreements whereby the Government furnished its allies in World War II forty billions of dollars worth of munitions of war and other supplies.

411 55 Stat. 31.

International Organizations.—Overlapping of the treaty-making power through congressional-executive cooperation in international agreements is also demonstrated by the use of resolutions approving the United States joining of international organizations412 and participating in international conventions.413

412 E.g., 48 Stat. 1182 (1934), authorizing the President to accept membership for the United States in the International Labor Organization.

413 See E. Corwin, supra at 216.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014