As USTR Insists ACTA Doesn't Need Congressional Approval, Wyden Asks State Dept. For A Second Opinion
from the that's-not-what-the-constitution-says dept
Back in October, we noted that Senator Ron Wyden had sent the Obama administration a letter pointing out that it appeared unconstitutional for the President to sign ACTA without getting Congressional approval. The USTR had been insisting that because ACTA does not require any change to US law, it doesn’t need any such approval. Of course, that ignores a few issues. First, while it may not change US laws, it seems likely that it would restrict future changes to laws if we wanted to stay in compliance. For that reason alone, it should have Congressional approval. But the larger point is that international agreements signed without Congressional approval — so-called “executive agreements,” — can only be done for issues solely under the President’s mandate. Copyright and patent laws, however, are the mandate of Congress, not the President.
The statement by the USTR confuses the issue by conflating two separate stages of the process required for binding the U.S. to international agreements: entry and implementation. It may be possible for the U.S. to implement ACTA or any other trade agreement, once validly entered, without legislation if the agreement requires no change in U.S. law. But, regardless of whether the agreement requires changes in U.S. law, a point that is contested with respect to ACTA, the executive branch lacks constitutional authority to enter a binding international agreement covering issues delegated by the Constitution to Congress’ authority, absent congressional approval.
Thus, Wyden asked the President to explicitly state that ACTA was not binding and does not create any international obligations for the US:
I request that as a condition of the U.S. putting forward any official instrument that accepts the terms of ACTA that you formally declare that ACTA does not create any international obligations for the U.S. — that ACTA is not binding. If you are unwilling or unable to make such a clarification, it is imperative that your administration provide the Congress, and the public, with a legal rationale for why ACTA should not be considered by Congress, and work with us to ensure that we reach a common understanding of the proper way for the U.S. to proceed with ACTA.
Instead, however, the USTR responded (embedded below) with the same exact response it’s been giving out all along: nothing to see here because ACTA requires no changes to US laws. There are two very big problems with this. First, it’s not clear that’s even true. The Congressional Research Service’s analysis of the language of ACTA (done at the request of Wyden) pointed out that ACTA may require changes to US law. The problem (and it’s a big problem) is that the language is so vague, it all comes down to interpretation.
Second, even if the USTR is correct that ACTA requires no changes to US law, that’s answering a different question. Wyden did not ask about what ACTA required to implement. He asked what was required to approve it. And the law does not say that the President can declare something an executive agreement if it doesn’t require a legislative change — but that he can only do it for things under his sole mandate. ACTA clearly does not qualify. Either way, this is a really disingenuous move by the USTR. It answers a different question and does so possibly inaccurately. And, nowhere in the letter did anyone respond to Wyden’s specific request for a declaration that ACTA creates no international obligations for the US.
In response, Wyden has now sent a second letter (also embedded below) to the State Department, asking it to look into this and clarify if a mistake has been made. Here are the specific questions he asks the State Department to answer:
- If ACTA is entered by the President without Congressional consent, what will be the nature of the agreement and its legal implications under U.S. and international law? For example, is it the Department of State’s opinion that ACTA will be equivalent to a non-binding “memorandum of understanding,” like some of the intellectual property agreements cited by USTR in the attached letter? Can ACTA be a valid and binding “sole executive agreement” under the U.S. Constitution, even though the regulation of intellectual property is not a sole executive function under the Constitution? Or must ACTA, to be binding, be a form of Congressional-executive agreement by virtue of ex ante or ex post congressional approval?
- What is the nature of the international legal obligations that ACTA would create? Would the U.S. be in violation of the agreement if the Congress changed federal law in a way not consistent with the agreement, for example by ridding our law of statutory damages for online copyright infringement? What would be the implications of such a violation?
- What are the constitutional limits on the President binding the U.S. to legislative minimum standard agreements over matters delegated to Congress under Article I Section 8 of the Constitution? Is the President free to bind the U.S. to any international agreement he chooses merely because he deems them to be consistent with U.S. law? (It is worth noting that many experts believe that ACTA is not, in fact, consistent with current U.S. law.)
These are good questions. The first and third are the crux of the Constitutional issue, but the second one is the really important one from a policy standpoint. We’ve argued that a rather serious problem with ACTA is that it will severely limit Congress’ ability to fix certain aspects of copyright law. The example used by Wyden is a good one. There’s a very strong argument to be made that statutory damages in copyright law are ridiculous, disproportionate and out of control. Fixing them would be a big help in making sure that copyright law isn’t used regularly as a nuclear weapon against people who simply can’t defend against the possibility of ridiculous damages awards. Another example would be if Congress decided to walk the courts back on their made up idea of “inducement” being a form of copyright infringement. Under ACTA, either of these moves would put the US in violation. So while it may not require legal changes to implement today, it may significantly prevent Congress from making those changes. And shouldn’t Congress have the right to weigh in on that?