Presidential orders to private companies

  • 26 August 2019
  • NormanL

Late last week, the President asserted via Twitter that he was "ordering" U.S. companies to relocate their operations away from mainland China. It caused quite a stir -- can a president, any president, actually do such a thing?

The answer is unclear. A 1977 law called the "International Emergency Economic Powers Act," appears like it might allow a president to regulate any number of private transactions with foreign nations -- if an emergency has been declared.

The Congressional Research Service put together a report on the law earlier this year. The history and uses of the law are fascinating and, for constitutionalists, a bit chilling:

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) provides the President broad authority to regulate a variety of economic transactions following a declaration of national emergency. IEEPA, like the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) from which it branched, sits at the center of the modern U.S. sanctions regime. Changes in the use of IEEPA powers since the act’s enactment in 1977 have caused some to question whether the statute’s oversight provisions are robust enough given the sweeping economic powers it confers upon the President upon declaration of a state of emergency.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Congress delegated increasing amounts of emergency power to the President by statute. The Trading with the Enemy Act was one such statute. Congress passed TWEA in 1917 to regulate international transactions with enemy powers following the U.S. entry into the First World War. Congress expanded the act during the 1930s to allow the President to declare a national emergency in times of peace and assume sweeping powers over both domestic and international transactions. Between 1945 and the early 1970s, TWEA became a critically important means to impose sanctions as part of U.S. Cold War strategy. Presidents used TWEA to block international financial transactions, seize U.S.-based assets held by foreign nationals, restrict exports, modify regulations to deter the hoarding of gold, limit foreign direct investment in U.S. companies, and impose tariffs on all imports into the United States.

Following committee investigations that discovered that the United States had been in a state of emergency for more than 40 years, Congress passed the National Emergencies Act (NEA) in 1976 and IEEPA in 1977. The pair of statutes placed new limits on presidential emergency powers. Both included reporting requirements to increase transparency and track costs, and the NEA required the President to annually assess and extend, if appropriate, the emergency. However, some experts argue that the renewal process has become pro forma. The NEA also afforded Congress the means to terminate a national emergency by adopting a concurrent resolution in each chamber. A decision by the Supreme Court, in a landmark immigration case, however, found the use of concurrent resolutions to terminate an executive action unconstitutional. Congress amended the statute to require a joint resolution, significantly increasing the difficulty of terminating an emergency.

Like TWEA, IEEPA has become an important means to impose economic-based sanctions since its enactment; like TWEA, Presidents have frequently used IEEPA to restrict a variety of international transactions; and like TWEA, the subjects of the restrictions, the frequency of use, and the duration of emergencies have expanded over time. Initially, Presidents targeted foreign states or their governments. Over the years, however, presidential administrations have increasingly used IEEPA to target individuals, groups, and non-state actors such as terrorists and persons who engage in malicious cyber-enabled activities.

As of March 1, 2019, Presidents had declared 54 national emergencies invoking IEEPA, 29 of which are still ongoing. Typically, national emergencies invoking IEEPA last nearly a decade, although some have lasted significantly longer--the first state of emergency declared under the NEA and IEEPA, which was declared in response to the taking of U.S. embassy staff as hostages by Iran in 1979, may soon enter its fifth decade.

IEEPA grants sweeping powers to the President to control economic transactions. Despite these broad powers, Congress has never attempted to terminate a national emergency invoking IEEPA. Instead, Congress has directed the President on numerous occasions to use IEEPA authorities to impose sanctions. Congress may want to consider whether IEEPA appropriately balances the need for swift action in a time of crisis with Congress’ duty to oversee executive action. Congress may also want to consider IEEPA’s role in implementing its influence in U.S. foreign policy and national security decision- making.

"The IEEPA grants seeping powers to the President to control economic transactions." Incredible.

But just as incredible in Congress' decades-long unwillingness to curb the powers it gave presidents, under the guise of an "emergency" to regulate and, it appears, issue "orders" to the private sector. That is an insult to the idea of limited government...if such an idea still matters in official Washington.

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