April 27, 2011 – Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution – Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College
Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2
2: He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
As Publius reminded his readers in the forty-seventh Federalist, Montesquieu called the Constitution of England “the mirror of liberty”—so esteemed for its separation of governmental powers. So long as no one person or set of persons can exercise legislative, executive and judicial powers, neither king nor aristocrats nor commoners can dominate the country. In the United States, where everyone is a commoner, separation of powers remains relevant to the sustenance of liberty. If “the accumulation of all powers” in “the same hands” can “justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” then even a cabal of commoners might so empower themselves, serving as lawgivers, judges, jurors and executioners over their fellow citizens.
But if separation of powers serves as an indispensable bulwark of political liberty (Publius continues), one must understand it rightly, as Montesquieu did. Montesquieu “did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other.” He only meant that no one department may “possess the whole power of another department.” To make the three branches of government entirely independent of one another would amount to making three distinct governments—uncoordinated, ineffective, hardly able to govern at all. No person or persons could be held responsible for government action or, more likely, inaction.
The president’s power to make treaties and nominations exemplifies these principles of liberty and responsibility. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress negotiated treaties. This required the dispatch of one or more delegates, thus depriving one or more states of representation. On the other hand, a treaty, once ratified, is a law—indeed, a supreme law. The executive branch must not legislate. Further, if treaties are laws disputes will arise requiring judicial attention—the province of neither legislature nor executive. If neither the Congress nor the president alone can assume the responsibility of treaty making, the only remedy can be to divide treaty-making into two parts, assigning each part to a different branch.
Then there is the matter of federalism. Treaties are the nation’s business, but do the states not want their interests represented, as well?
The Framers’ solution: the executive branch will negotiate treaties; the Senate will ratify them; the Supreme Court will adjudicate case arising under them. But this separation of powers and duties does not and cannot imply isolation of powers and duties. Senators can advise the president on the treaty (before and after negotiations); although negotiations themselves ought to be confidential; they can then consent or ratify the treaty resulting from those negotiations. Thus both branches exercise mutual control over treaties without interfering with or encroaching upon one another.
The same goes for presidential appointments. Who will control the apparatus, the administration, of the American national state? Not Congress directly: as James Wilson argued at the Convention, “a principal reason for unity in the Executive was that officers might be appointed by a single, responsible person,” thus avoiding “intrigue, partiality, and concealment.” At the same time, complete presidential control over appointments could allow a president to create offices and fill them with his favorites—the very definition of “corruption” as the term was used in the eighteenth century, and one of the most frequent complaints against monarchy. (Recall the words of the Declaration of Independence: King George “has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance.”) Again, the solution was to divide and correlate two powers, giving nomination to the president and appointment to the Senate. The sovereign people can clearly observe both of these governing actions and finally hold their representatives responsible for them.
The construction of the presidential powers of treaty-making and of nomination thus addresses the crucial issues of the character of the American regime and the structure of the American state. The people retain their sovereignty through their elected representatives. No one set of representatives governs without restraint from other sets of representatives. Through the Senate, the states have a decisive `say’ in both international lawmaking and the composition of the national administration. Both republicanism and federalism are preserved.
Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.