Working Paper No. 08-56:
Legislating Clear-Statement Regimes in National-Security Law

Author(s):

Jonathan Mitchell

Date Posted: September 2008

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Abstract:

Congress's national-security legislation will often require clear and specific congressional authorization before the executive can undertake certain actions. The War Powers Resolution, for example, prohibits any law from authorizing military hostilities unless it "specifically authorizes" them. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 required laws to amend FISA or repeal its "exclusive means" provision before they could authorize warrantless electronic surveillance. But efforts to legislate clear-statement regimes in national-security law have failed to induce compliance. The Clinton Administration inferred congressional "authorization" for the 1999 Kosovo War from an appropriations statute that failed to specifically authorize the conflict. And the Bush Administration inferred ongressional "authorization" for the NSA surveillance program from ambiguous language in the post-September 11th Authorization to Use Military Force. In both situations, executive-branch lawyers employed expansive theories of implied repeal and constitutional avoidance to evade the codified clear-statement requirements, and Congress and the courts acquiesced to the President's actions. Recent proposals to strengthen the clear-statement requirements in Congress's national-security framework legislation are unlikely to be effective without institutional mechanisms, such as points of order, that can deter future legislators from enacting vague or ambiguous legislation from which the executive might claim implicit congressional "authorization," and that can induce Congress to confront Presidents that act without specific congressional authorization. Simply enacting more narrow or explicit clear-statement requirements, or adding funding restrictions to Congress's framework legislation, fails to counter the aggressive interpretive doctrines that executives of both political parties have used to concoct congressional "authorization" from vague or ambiguous statutory language.