Recently President Donald Trump announced that the US would not join the Paris Climate Agreement, to much uproar. But in reality, the United States had never signed off on the agreement. Here’s why:
On June 1, 2017, in a speech delivered from the Rose Garden at the White House, President Trump announced, “as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”
President Trump made this announcement based on President Obama’s decision to “join about 170 other countries in sighing the Paris Agreement, a historic deal to reduce carbon emissions across the globe.” Secretary of State John Kerry signed the agreement on behalf of the Obama Administration on April 22, 2016.
But all of this activity is missing a simple fact: no president sets U.S. policy alone. They must work with Congress.
In the United States, no international treaties are actually ratified — meaning officially accepted — until approved by the Senate. This particular check on executive power comes early in the Constitution. From Article II:
“[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur…”
The Constitution is pretty clear here that the President alone is powerless in international affairs. A super-majority of the Senate must agree before presidents go bounding around the globe sharing their opinion as if it were is law.
So why did President Obama not submit the Paris Agreement to the Senate for ratification? U.S. negotiators in Paris went to great lengths to advocate language that watered down the agreement. Their goal was clear: to give them some legal wiggle room to say “well, it’s not really a treaty.”
If the president goes to great lengths to water down an important treaty just so they don’t have to send it to the Senate as an actual treaty, that’s no different than a teenager telling her parents “it’s not really a party, Sara’s just having a few friends over.”
The U.S. government is structured with three separate but equal branches. This design prevents the unintended but predictable consequences of unchecked power:
- The legislative branch creates the law
- The executive branch executes the law
- The judicial branch makes sure the law is being followed
When a president thinks they can turn this formula on its head, disaster strikes. Businesses have a harder time keeping up with regulations. Families have a harder time paying taxes. State and local governments struggle to keep up with orders from Washington instead of serving their citizens. Other nations wonder why we can’t make up our minds.
What are your thoughts?
Should presidents have the power to make make law alone, or should our leaders agree before making it official?
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