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Time To Realize That The Obama Administration Doesn't Even Have The Authority To Commit The US To ACTA Or TPP—A Commentary by Margot Kaminski ’10

The following commentary was posted on on May 16, 2012.

Time To Realize That The Obama Administration Doesn't Even Have The Authority To Commit The US To ACTA Or TPP
By Margot Kaminski ’10

There is a major problem with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that has little to do with IP or the internet: how does international law get made—by the President alone, or with Congress's involvement? ACTA's key problem in the United States is a Constitutional question that turns on the separation of powers. The President, or an office of the executive branch like USTR, can negotiate treaties that fall within presidential powers. But for topics that fall within Congressional powers, like IP law, the Constitution requires that Congress be involved in the process.

The most obvious and difficult way to involve Congress is through Article II of the Constitution. Under Article II, a treaty negotiated by the executive branch is presented to the Senate for ratification. The process is notoriously difficult, because it requires two-thirds of the Senate to approve. So USTR, almost understandably, wants to avoid the Article II process if at all possible.

A number of years ago, this wouldn't have been a problem, or at least not a Constitutional one. Congress gave USTR "fast track" authority to negotiate trade agreements, subject to an up-or-down vote at the end of the negotiating process. This authority, however, expired in July 2007. ACTA wasn't announced until October of that same year. Fast track wasn't great, because it didn't allow for amendments, but at least it allowed final oversight over the executive branch by Congress. It also allowed international law to be made, because the hurdle of Senate ratification for Article II treaties can make that process come to a standstill.

USTR knew, then, when it began negotiating ACTA, that it no longer had Congress's authorization to negotiate these kinds of trade agreements. This doesn't mean that USTR had to drop its activities, but at the end of the negotiating process, it would have to seek Congress's approval anew. If Congress decided not to do an up-or-down vote or amend the agreement, the agreement would need to go to the Senate for ratification, or it would fail.

So USTR tried to avoid the process, and Congress, entirely. USTR initially explained that it planned to negotiate ACTA under the President's powers, alone. This made no sense, as prominent legal scholars noted. The President's inherent powers do not involve IP. That’s Congress's purview.

In March 2012, USTR switched gears. After Senator Ron Wyden publicly questioned the way in which ACTA had been negotiated, the Legal Advisor to the Department of State, Harold Hongju Koh (disclosure: also formerly the dean of my law school and my professor of transnational law), explained that ACTA wasn't being negotiated just by the President. Koh explained that--surprise!--Congress actually had been involved in ACTA, authorizing the negotiation of ACTA beforehand in the 2008 PRO-IP Act.

There's a major problem with this argument. First, the part of the PRO-IP Act Koh cited describes the creation of a plan for US agencies to generally coordinate on IP enforcement, under the IP Czarina Espinel. It isn't addressed to USTR, and it doesn't authorize USTR to negotiate an agreement.
Second, there's an element of madness in claiming that the 2008 PRO-IP Act authorizes ACTA. ACTA was announced in 2007. How can Congress pre-authorize the negotiation of a treaty that was announced in 2007 through a law enacted in 2008?

Thus, while the EU focuses on ACTA's impact on fundamental rights and liberties, in the United States the procedural problem blows those questions out of the water.

This is about situating ACTA against a bigger picture of the excessive power of the President, and the ability of Congress to put limits on the executive branch. In the context of treaty-making, it's about all of our international lawmaking, and an executive branch that has grown used to making international commitments without involving democratic process. It's important to understand that ACTA is just the tip of the iceberg, where the public has finally encountered the craziness with which international law now gets made in the United States. Frequently, now, international law gets made by the President under purported prior authorization by Congress, without a democratic vote at the end of the process.

There are enormously important values at stake. When the executive negotiates without Congress's participation, citizens don't get a say in the process. We don't get to review the agreement, or pressure our representatives into changing or rejecting it. However, special industry groups do, including the RIAA, as advisors to USTR.

It's not that all the problems with IP and trade law would disappear if we involved Congress. But the struggles of advocates and academics with USTR's lack of responsiveness and the secrecy around ACTA and TPP show that we require at least a sense of being able to effect change through democratic process.

Congress needs to get involved here. It needs to make clear to the administration that it must send ACTA to Congress to seek approval, or to the Senate for ratification as an Article II treaty. With this in mind, I am part of a group of legal academics that is writing to the Senate Finance Committee asking them to make these requirements clear with respect to ACTA. The PRO-IP Act doesn't authorize ACTA, and IP is not part of the President's inherent powers, so Congress must get involved.

And the problem continues. Last week, the USTR and other countries met to continue negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) in Dallas. The TPP also contains an unreleased IP chapter of dubious substance. As of now, USTR still doesn't have fast-track authority from Congress to negotiate agreements like the TPP. USTR also can't claim that the PRO-IP Act authorizes negotiations this time, because unlike ACTA, TPP is broader than just IP. So once again, USTR is negotiating an international agreement without a clear plan of how Congress or the Senate will be involved. If USTR does not get the desired fast-track authority for TPP, it will have to try to get after-the-fact approval from Congress or ratify TPP as an Article II treaty. So where ACTA is facing a Constitutional crisis where the executive branch is claiming it can go it alone, TPP is an example of an overactive agency not thinking through how it will Constitutionally accomplish its goals.

What we have right now is an overactive executive branch accustomed to a lack of supervision, and a Congress that has failed to assert its Constitutional responsibility in this sphere. If we want public input on international law-making at any point in the future, this is a dynamic that we're really going to have to work hard to change.