22 Jan Is Boehner’s Netanyahu Invite Unconstitutional?
John Boehner has invited Bibi Netanyahu to address Congress. There’s a modern tradition of foreign leaders appearing before the legislature (list here). I’m willing to bet that every single one of those appearances was pre-cleared with the State Department or White House in advance.
I’m no student of Middle East politics, but it’s seems pretty clear that the the White House and the congressional GOP leadership are at loggerheads on US policy here and that the Boehner invitation is meant to advance the GOP (and Israeli) position on Iran. In the past, when members of Congress have gone freelance on foreign policy there’s been a tradition of waving around of the Logan Act, which provides:
Private correspondence with foreign governments.
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
It happened most prominently when Jim Wright played footsie with Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime in the 1980s. It was suggested as a problem as recently as 2007 when Nancy Pelosi visited Syria against Bush Administration wishes. As conservative commentator Bob Turner argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (“Illegal Diplomacy“):
consider this statement by Albert Gallatin, the future Secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson, who was wary of centralized government: “it would be extremely improper for a member of this House to enter into any correspondence with the French Republic . . . As we are not at war with France, an offence of this kind would not be high treason, yet it would be as criminal an act, as if we were at war . . . .” Indeed, the offense is greater when the usurpation of the president’s constitutional authority is done by a member of the legislature — all the more so by a Speaker of the House — because it violates not just statutory law but constitutes a usurpation of the powers of a separate branch and a breach of the oath of office Ms. Pelosi took to support the Constitution.
No intent here to compare Netanyahu and Assad, but the logic of presidential control applies in both cases. (This isn’t about actual prosecution under the Logan Act. No one is ever actually prosecuted under the measure; it’s more a focal point for highlighting structural aspects of foreign relations.) In both cases, presidential powers are “embarrassed” in the terms of Curtiss-Wright. Will the Wall Street Journal take Boehner to task for his move? Somehow I doubt it. (For that matter how could constitutional originalists square this with the Framers’ intent? No head of a foreign state appears to have addressed Congress prior to 1919.)
The White House has called the Boehner move a breach of protocol. If this were happening beyond the political anomalies of the Middle East, I wonder if it might be using some stronger language. In any case the episode will set a precedent for congressional bypass of executive branch foreign policy in interacting, fairly formally, with foreign government leaders. (Will the Speaker host something like a state dinner for Bibi?)
Mind you, I’m not sure it’s a bad precedent (again, leaving aside policy particulars of the ME situation). It’s a fact of life that governmental components are now semi-autonomous foreign policy players in a way that would have been unimaginable in the 18th century. The constitutional custom, norms, “protocols” — whatever you want to call them — are catching up to those realities. Presidents will just have to learn to deal with the new tools of foreign policy dissent.
UPDATE: More thoughts from me on this here. On the originalism point, don’t take it from me, take it from Mike Ramsey, easily the leading expert on originalism in the context of foreign affairs. The VC’s David Bernstein, a consistent Israel/Netanyahu/GOP backer, is also on board in thinking there is a constitutional problem.