Skip to content

Constitutional Text and Discontinuity

So what does the Constitution say about discontinuity? Let’s start our analysis at what might seem like an odd place (strike that, what is an odd place), an email from the Clerk of the Australian Senate:

I have always thought that, as your Constitution has no prorogation or dissolution, and as both of your Houses are continuing bodies (notwithstanding that all of the House seats turn over at the same time), it makes little sense to speak of different congresses, sessions or terms, and the convention of bills dying at the end of a “term” also has no basis.

Email from Harry Evans, Clerk of the Senate, Parliament of Australia, to Seth Barrett Tillman (Nov. 4, 2004), reproduced in Seth Barrett Tillman, Noncontemporaneous Lawmaking: Can the 110thSenate Enact a Bill Passed by the 109thHouse?, 16 Cornell J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 331 (2007).

I presume by “term” Mr. Evans was referring to the “term” of a congress, rather than to the terms of individual members of congress. The 20thamendment, after all, provides that “the terms of Senators and Representatives [shall end] at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.” This language is explicit in distinguishing a legislator’s term from that of his or her successor (or predecessor).

The original Constitution, on the other hand, says less about this subject:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

                   * * *

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one vote.

It is true, as Evans observes, that this language says nothing explicitly about “new” or “separate” congresses or congressional terms. It also says nothing about members of the House serving for terms of precisely two years (indeed, it does not expressly say they serve for limited terms at all). One might even draw a negative inference from the fact that senators are chosen “for six years,” but no statement is made that representatives are chosen “for two years.”

One could plausibly read this text as merely requiring that each state hold a congressional election sometime during each even-or odd-numbered year (absent congressional action pursuant to section 4 of Article I, the choice would be up to each state). Once the election were held, the newly elected member might assume a seat immediately, even if the House were in session. Alternatively, this might not occur until (1) the next convening or assembly of the House; (2) the next assembly or meeting of Congress: or (3) the first assembly or meeting of Congress in the next calendar year. The text does not tell us which of these alternatives is the correct one, or whether there is no single correct answer and it is up to somebody (Congress or the states, presumably) to decide as a policy matter.

Similarly, the text does not say when the terms of House members end. The Constitution does provide specifically that senate seats are vacated at two year intervals from the date of first assembly. Again, one mightdraw the inference that the absence of corresponding language for representatives is of some significance. Perhaps the seats of House members are vacated when their successors are elected (or sworn in) and thus will vary depending on the state election schedule. Perhaps the seats are vacated when the House adjourns sine diein the calendar year during which congressional elections are held (which might or might not be the same for all states). In short, it is not clear, based on the text of the (original) Constitution alone, when House seats turn over or if they in fact all turn over at the same time.

Nevertheless, from 1789 to 1932 (when the 20thamendment was proposed), the Constitution was uniformly interpreted to require all terms for House members to begin and end at the same time and to last for exactly two years. Although the beginning point was fixed not by a constitutional provision but by an act of ordinary legislation (one by the Confederation Congress), Congress believed that it lacked the constitutional power to alter this congressional schedule no matter how inconvenient or downright pernicious it was found to be. See generallyEdward J. Larson, The Constitutionality of Lame-Duck Lawmaking: The Text, History, and Original Meaning of the Twentieth Amendment, 2012 Utah L. Rev. 707, 715-17 (2012).

Specifically, in 1788 the Confederation Congress directed that the proceedings of the new government under the newly-ratified Constitution would commence on the first Wednesday of the following March. This date, which happened to be March 4, 1789, was thenceforth considered as the commencement date for the terms of all federal elected officials (president, vice president, senators and representatives), which terms would also expire on March 4 (of each odd-numbered year, in the case of representatives). This produced the odd result that congressional terms began on March 4 of each odd-numbered year, but the newly-elected congress did not ordinarily assemble until nine months later on the first Monday in December, which was the default date specified by the original Constitution for the annual meeting of Congress.

Another inconvenient result of this schedule was the so-called “short session” of Congress. When Congress assembled on the first Monday in December of an even-numbered year, its proceedings could last no longer than about three months, i.e.,until March 4 of the following year. At that time the terms of all House members and one-third of senators expired, and the incumbents no longer had any constitutional authority to hold their seats or perform legislative activities.

According to Evans, however, both houses of Congress, and therefore Congress itself, are continuing bodies. Professor Tillman agrees. SeeSeth Barrett Tillman, Defending the (Not So)  Indefensible, 16 Cornell J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 363, 368 n.22 (2007) (“I believe the House and the Senate are both continuing bodies.”). So, apparently, does Professor Prakash. See Saikrishna Bangalore Prakash, Of Synchronicity and Supreme Law35 (Jan. 2018) (“there is no [constitutional] rule that dictates that ‘Congress’ necessarily expires . . . [n]or does any text specify that, when terminated, an old Congress immediately segues into a new Congress”);id. at 36 (“one might conclude that while members come and go due to deaths, resignations, and expulsions, Congress itself never changes [and] there is (and always has been) but one, uninterrupted Congress, albeit composed of different members across time.”).

If Evans, Tillman and Prakash were correct that Congress is continuing in nature, the “short session” would not have posed much of a problem. Congress could have simply continued to sit past March 4, with two-thirds of the Senate and all re-elected incumbents unaffected, while the seats of retiring or defeated incumbents would be assumed by their newly-elected representatives. Thus, despite the expiration of congressional terms, the business of Congress could have continued without interruption. This would have been a regime of legislative continuity.

Congress, however, has never understood the Constitution to permit it to operate in such a fashion. From the very start, Congress has understood that each two-year congressional term constitutes a separate congress, with the First Congress occurring from March 4, 1789 to March 4, 1791, the Second Congress from March 4, 1791 to March 4, 1793, and so on. SeePrakash, supra, at 35. As a result, all legislative business had to be completed by March 4 of each odd-numbered year, when the “old Congress” expired. SeeS. Rep. 72-26Fixing the Commencement of the Terms of the President and Vice President and Members of Congress4 (72d Cong. 1stsess.) (Jan. 4, 1932) (explaining the “very undesirable legislative condition” resulting from the “so-called short session,” which “enables a few Members of Congress to arbitrarily prevent the passage of laws simply by the consumption of time”); Larson, supra, 2012 Utah L. Rev. at 715-34 (describing over a century of efforts to eliminate the short session).

It is true, as Professor Prakash emphasizes, that the Constitution does not explicitly declare that each congress expires or dissolves every two years or that there is a distinction between the current congress and past congresses. SeePrakash, supra, at 35. But if one recognizes that the temporal limitation of a legislative body was a fundamental practice not only of Parliament but of the colonial/state legislatures, it seems entirely reasonable to read the Constitution’s references to “Congress” as incorporating these concepts. For example, the declaration in Article I, section 1, that “[a]ll legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives” may be interpreted as an implicit reference to the currentcongress, just as the “President” implicitly refers to the currentpresident. See generallyLawrence B. Solum, Surprising Originalism: The Regala Lecture11-12 (draft May 8, 2018) (discussing the importance of “impliciture” and other forms of “pragmatic enrichment” in reading constitutional text); cf.Tillman, Noncontemporaneous Lawmaking, 16 Cornell J. L. & Pub. Pol’y at 336 n.11 (conceding that the language of Art. I, §1 “might support contemporaneous action as an implicit requirement of bicameral action”).

Alternatively, one might conclude that the original Constitution is silent on the question of legislative discontinuity and that the practice of treating each two-year term as a separate congress is a “mere” constitutional gloss placed upon the text from 1789 to 1932. This position becomes much harder to take, however, when one considers the adoption of the 20thamendment in 1932-33.

Again, it is true, as Prakash takes pains to point out, that the 20thamendment never expressly “dictates that a ‘Congress’ commences on January 3 of an odd year at noon and terminates on the same day and time two years later.” Prakash, supra, at 35. It is indisputable, however, that this is precisely what everyone involved in proposing and ratifying the 20thamendment understood would be the effect of that amendment. This, moreover, was not an incidental effect but part of the amendment’s core purpose.

Part of the objective of the 20thamendment was simply to eliminate the short session, which was inconvenient and inefficient for the reasons already mentioned. The other objectives related to the importance of assembling a “new Congress” as soon as possible after it was elected and ensuring that it, rather than the “old Congress,” was making important decisions. SeeS. Rep. No. 72-26, at 4 (“No reason has been given why a new Congress elected at a general election to translate into law the wishes of the people should not be installed into office practically as soon as the results of the election can be determined.”).

As the House report accompanying the proposed amendment explains, “[u]nder our present system, the old Congress expires on the 4thday of March of the odd years, and the first meeting of the new Congress is on the first Monday of the following December.” H.R. Rep. No. 72-345, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States3 (72d Cong. 1stsess.) (Feb. 2, 1932). The proposed amendment shifted this schedule so that the old Congress expired at noon on January 3 of each odd-numbered year, and the meeting of the new Congress (unless changed by law) would occur at the same date and time.

Supporters of the amendment argued that this revised schedule was not merely more efficient and convenient, but more consistent with the principles of representative democracy:

The only direct opportunity that the citizens of the country have to express their ideas and their wishes in regard to national legislation is the expression of their will through the election of their representatives at the general election in November. During the campaign that precedes this election the great questions demanding attention at the hands of the new Congress are discussed at length before the people and throughout the country, and it is only fair to presume that the Members of Congress chosen at that election fairly represent the ideas of a majority of the people of the country as to what legislation is desirable.

S. Rep. No. 72-26, at 3. These views mirror the arguments for legislative discontinuity discussed in my last post.

Professor Tillman argues that the idea of each congress expiring or dissolving was based on an inappropriate attempt to map British parliamentary practices onto a very different American legislative system. SeeTillman, Defending the (Not So) Indefensible, 16 Cornell J. L. & Pub. Pol’y at 368 n.22, 376 n.46, 377 n.50, 379 n.56. However, the framers of the 20thamendment were well familiar with a century and a half of legislative practice under the Constitution, and they did not see it the way Tillman does. They believed that the Constitution needed to be amended to bring American practice morein line with that of other countries with respect to the assembling of a new legislature. Representative Celler, for example, remarked: “In no country other than ours does 13 months elapse between election and convocation of parliament. The practice in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand has been to make the interval between elections and the summoning of parliaments as short as possible.” 75 Cong. Rec. 3828 (1932). Another member remarked:

Mr. Chairman, I was wondering, as Winston Churchill sat over in the rear of the House a few minutes ago, what his emotions would be if, in the Parliament of England, he and his colleagues sat around for 13 months after election before they took their seats for legislative work at the next regular session. There, the English people throw out an administration upon their own vote, returning the new Parliament that then comes in and legislates, while we wait 13 months unless called here in extra session. 383 (Rep. Frear).

In short, the framers and ratifiers of the 20thamendment clearly understood that the amendment would establish noon on January 3 of each odd-numbered year as the time when an old congress would expire and a new congress would begin. To deny that the constitutional text has this effect would seem to be an exercise in “literalism” rather than “textualism.” See Solum, supra, at 11 (explaining the difference).


Legislative Discontinuity: An Introduction

Last month I had the pleasure of participating in the International Conference on Legislation and Law Reform, which was held at AU’s Washington College of Law. During one of the plenary sessions on U.S. legislative drafting, a Dutch lawyer asked about the practice of “discontinuity” in Congress. I am not sure the panelists understood what this term meant (I know I didn’t), but the lawyer elaborated that he was asking whether legislation had to pass within a certain period of time. The panelists then explained that bills must pass both houses within the two-year congressional term and that all unfinished legislative business dies at the end of each congress.

This practice is known, at least internationally, as one of “discontinuity” because legislative business does not continue past the expiration or dissolution of the legislature. I asked the Dutch lawyer later whether there are legislatures which follow the opposite practice of allowing legislation to continue even though a new legislature has been elected. He said there are, including the Netherlands and the EU Parliament. In these jurisdictions bills can remain “live” for years or even decades after they are introduced. In some cases, the original sponsor of the measure is no longer in the legislature so there is no one who can formally withdraw it.

There apparently is not a lot of literature on discontinuity, but one recent article discusses it in some depth. SeeRivka Weill, The Living-Dead, 38 Fordham Intl L. J. 387 (2015). Professor Weill explains that legislative discontinuity is “the prevailing norm in both presidential and parliamentary systems.” 389. There are, however, exceptions, including the Netherlands and the EU Parliament (so that checks out). Id.Another exception is Israel, and Weill (who is Israeli) focuses on the decision of the Knesset to adopt a rule of continuity in the 1960s.

She describes two different schools of thought within the Knesset. The pro-continuity side saw the Knesset as a continuing body. 447. This position, according to Weill, rested on a conception of the legislature as having “perpetuity and continuity similar to an artificial body, like a corporation.” Id. at 448. Under this vision, the continuity of the legislature is maintained by the passage of sovereignty from one assembly to another, just as in a monarchy the sovereignty of the King’s person passes in death to the natural body of his heir. Id.

The discontinuity side, on the other hand, believed that “each parliament is born anew.” 447. Weill argues that this conception is fundamental to representative government and that the failure to follow it “severs the link between legislative cycles and election cycles, and thus eviscerates the significance of elections.” 413. By contrast, the pro-continuity argument is mistaken because in Israel and other liberal democracies “the continuity of sovereignty rests with the people, not with their representatives.” Id. at 448. Thus, popular sovereignty “is manifested in the real power of constituents to influence the content of laws by breaking the legislative continuity and electing new representatives.” Id.

Weill also contends that as a matter of actual practice, the Knesset has not regarded itself as a continuing body. Moreover, even in the U.S. Senate, which does consider itself to be a continuing body, “the principle of discontinuity of the legislative process applies, as bills that do not become law within two years are dead.” 449.

One of the interesting aspects of this Israeli debate related to the discussion of British parliamentary practice. See 404-06, 409-10. Weill explains that Great Britain was viewed as the symbol of discontinuity and that both supporters and opponents of the continuity proposal used its example in their arguments. Id.

Here, some background on British practice may be useful.


Discontinuity in Britain

Historically, discontinuity in Britain stems from the crown’s prerogative powers of summoning, proroguing and dissolving parliament. Once a parliament was summoned, the king could either use prorogation to end its session or dissolution to end the parliament altogether:

The Tudor and Stuart monarchs summoned parliaments not merely to request tax revenue, but also to enact policies. They also relied on prorogation to prolong the life of a favourable rather than risk dissolving it and summoning a new, potentially less pliable parliament. For example, Henry VIII used prorogation to extend the life of the Reformation Parliament to seven years; it sat through seven sessions between 1529 and 1536 and passed a variety of statutes that broke with the Holy See and established England as an independent Protestant kingdom. Charles II used prorogation to prolong the life of the Cavalier Parliament and its Royalist majority from 1661 to 1679. The Stuarts also expressed their hostility toward what they regarded as parliamentary encroachment on Divine Right by dissolving pesky parliaments. The Sovereign thus determined at his own discretion both the duration of each individual parliament through prorogation and the number of years between parliaments through dissolution.

James W. J. Bowden, Reining in the Crown’s Power on Dissolution: The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of the United Kingdom versus The Fixed-Election Laws in Canada19 (June 4, 2013). Either prorogation (end of a session) or dissolution (end of a parliament) resulted in the death of pending legislative business. See 1 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England186-88 (1765).

As Parliament grew stronger, these royal prerogatives were to a large extent limited by statute and practice. Bowden, supra, at 19-22. Eighteenth century parliaments had a statutory maximum life of seven years and the dissolution of one parliament was routinely followed by the summoning of a new parliament and accompanying elections for the House of Commons.See1 Blackstone, at 177-78, 189.

Even today, the queen formally exercises the powers of prorogation and dissolution, though in practice she does not exercise her own discretion but acts on the advice of the prime minister. SeeWilliam McKay & Charles W. Johnson, Parliament & Congress: Representation & Scrutiny in the Twenty-First Century33, 123 (2010). A new parliament is summoned by the crown and the parliament ends when It is dissolved by royal proclamation or (less commonly) by the passage of time. Id. Parliament continues to follow a rule of both legislative and sessional discontinuity (or, as it is sometimes called, “sessional cut-off”). However, sessional discontinuity is no longer absolute as some legislation can carry over from session to session. Id. at 465-66; Weill, 38 Fordham Intl L. J. at 404 n.74, 409-10.

Continue reading ‘Legislative Discontinuity: An Introduction’ »

Emoluments Trouble for Congress

As expected, Judge Messitte has issued an opinion finding that plaintiffs have standing to pursue their claims against President Trump for alleged violations of the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses in D.C. v. Trump, a case brought by the D.C. and Maryland governments in the U.S. district court in Maryland. Although I think this decision is mostly wrong, it may not matter much. The court is likely to fulfill the plaintiffs’ legal/political objectives before an appellate court has a chance to opine on the matter.

I will not bore you with the mind-numbing details of the standing analysis. The flavor of the court’s decision can be found on page 29, where it states “[i]t can hardly be gainsaid that a large number of Maryland and District of Columbia residents are being affected and will continue to be affected when foreign and state governments choose to stay, host events, or dine at the [Trump Hotel in DC] rather than at comparable Maryland or District of Columbia establishments, in whole or in substantial part simply because of the President’s association with it.”

Well, actually it can be gainsaid, and I hereby gainsay it. First, while the court cites anecdotal evidence that foreign governments (and, in one case, a state government) have frequented the Trump Hotel to curry favor with the president, this is not proof that the Trump Hotel is gaining a net advantage over its competitors because of its association with Trump. Are the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton (literally, the alleged “victims” being represented here) suffering an increase in room vacancies, a decline in revenue, or any other indicia of unfair competition? Undoubtedly some people are staying at the Trump because they like the president, and others are staying elsewhere because they feel differently. If the polls are to be believed, the Four Seasons should be a net winner.

Second, if the alleged injury is caused merely by the “association” between the president and the hotel, this would not be redressable by an order from the court requiring the president to divest his financial interest in the hotel. The court cursorily addresses this by saying that such an order would reduce the incentive to stay at the Trump Hotel “by some extent.” Op. at 37. This strikes me as sheer speculation (or, more accurately, speculation upon speculation).

Finally, and most importantly, I still do not see how the alleged competitive injuries are within the zone of interest protected by the emoluments clauses. The court’s conclusory assertion that competitors are within the zone of interests because the “the Emoluments Clauses clearly were and are meant to protect all Americans” is utterly unpersuasive. See op. at 41.

The opinion is closer to the mark when it discusses the Domestic Emoluments Clause. It points to the fact that Maine Governor LePage stayed at the Trump Hotel “on an official visit to Washington during the spring of 2017, met with the President, and not long after appeared with the President at a news conference” in which the latter signed an executive order that could help LePage reverse an Obama administration decision regarding a national monument in Maine. Op. at 18. Judge Messitte asserts that this “rather clearly suggests that Maryland and the District of Columbia may very well feel themselves obliged, i.e., coerced, to patronize the Hotel in order to help them obtain federal favors.” Op. at 19.

As a technical question of standing, it seems to me that if Governor LePage’s staying at the Trump Hotel constituted a violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause (which presumably the court should assume for purposes of the analysis), there is a reasonable argument that Maryland (not DC, which is still not a state) has standing to sue as an injured party. The theory would be that the clause prohibits states from providing emoluments to the president so as to avoid any favoritism on his part with respect to one or more states. Arguably, therefore, a state should be able to sue to prevent the president from accepting a prohibited emolument from another state. See op. at 15 (plaintiffs claim standing “to protect their ‘position among . . . sister States’”) (citations omitted).

On the other hand, the court’s opinion seems to go well beyond this. It posits a causal connection between LePage’s stay at the Trump Hotel and the president’s signing of a favorable executive order. It seems rather unlikely that whatever tangential financial benefit Trump received from the governor’s stay at his hotel was actually the motivating factor for the executive order. But if this connection is part of the basis for the plaintiffs’ standing, is the court going to require them to prove it? Or is this something the court is just going to assume?

The court also cites reports that the Trump Organization has “been accorded substantial tax concessions by at least the District of Columbia and the State of Mississippi.” Op. at 17. The court goes on to say “while ordinarily there may be a presumption of regularity as far as the decisions of the tax authorities are concerned, the fact remains that Trump Organization hotels, from which the President allegedly derives substantial illegal profits, have been the beneficiaries of these actions.” Id. If I read this right, the court is holding that D.C. has standing in part based on the assumption that an agency of D.C. acted illegally.

Regardless, it is pretty clear from the court’s opinion that it has a decidedly jaundiced view of Trump’s business interests. At points it appears to have already decided the merits. See, e.g., op. at 24-25 (“Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to show that the President’s ownership interest in the Hotel has had and almost certainly will continue to have an unlawful effect on competition . . .”). It cannot even resist taking an entirely inappropriate political shot at a party not even before the court, referring to “how Maine’s citizens may have felt about the propriety of their Governor living large at the Hotel while on official business in Washington . . .” Op. at 18-19. I personally think governors should stay at the Hilton Garden Inn when traveling, but this really doesn’t belong in a legal opinion. (Not to mention, “living large”?)

In short, if I were Trump’s lawyers, I would not be looking forward to the decision on the merits in this case.

None of this is to suggest that the court’s concerns are groundless from a public policy and, potentially, a constitutional perspective. The (alleged) fact that foreign governments are booking rooms at the Trump Hotel in order to win the president’s favor is unseemly at best. See op. at 4-5. While this alone would not constitute a violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause, suppose it turned out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, had booked a couple floors of the hotel and had placed a standing order for the most expensive room service meals to be delivered three times a day to each room? Just a hypothetical, of course, but without any independent oversight of the president’s business arrangements, it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility.

Which brings us to Congress. It is not unreasonable to think that had Congress shown even a modicum of interest in overseeing Trump’s business dealings and the arrangements (allegedly) made to prevent conflicts of interest, this case would not be moving forward. For example, the court notes that although the president claims “he has now paid to the U.S. Treasury the profits the Hotel has received from foreign governments,” there is no detail to substantiate this claim. Op. at 4 n.5. This is the type of information that congressional oversight committees should have demanded and obtained.

Judge Messitte leaves little doubt that he intends to fill the vacuum that Congress has left. See op. at 42 (noting that under president’s standing theory “no one—except Congress which . . . may never undertake to act—would ever be able to enforce these constitutional provisions.”). In a pointed footnote, he notes that “[s]uppose” Congress is controlled by the same party as the president and it “never undertakes to approve or disapprove” the president’s receipt of emoluments; the president could receive “unlimited” emoluments “without the least oversight and with absolute impunity.” Op. at 46 n.18. It hardly needs saying that this is exactly what the judge believes has happened.

The district court’s ultimate decision will undoubtedly render a harsh verdict on Trump’s conduct and probably entail serious (though perhaps temporary) legal consequences for the president. But the real institutional loser will be Congress, which once again will see its constitutional functions usurped by another branch.

In this case, at least, it has no one to blame but itself.



HPSCI Doesn’t Need Don McGahn’s Permission to Release Schiff Memo

We discussed a couple weeks ago the process by which the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) may publicly release classified information. Pursuant to House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(A), HPSCI had voted on January 29 to release the so-called “Nunes Memo.” This vote authorized the committee to release the memo

after the expiration of a five-day period following the day on which notice of the vote to disclose is transmitted to the President unless, before the expiration of the five-day period, the President, personally in writing, notifies the select committee that he objects to the disclosure of such information, provides his reasons therefor, and certifies that the threat to the national interest of the United States posed by the disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.

House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(B).

On February 2, President Trump declassified the Nunes Memo in response to HPSCI’s action. Although HPSCI’s January 29 vote was not a request to declassify the memo, there is nothing inherently wrong with declassifying the memo prior to the expiration of the five-day period, thereby allowing the committee to release the document earlier. However, there was no requirement that the president declassify the document. Once the five days expired without an objection satisfying the requirements of the rule, the committee was free to release the memo regardless of whether it had been declassified.

It appears, however, that the declassification of the Nunes Memo was something other than the executive branch’s attempt to be helpful. On February 5, HPSCI again voted to invoke the disclosure rule, this time with regard to the rebuttal memorandum prepared by the Democratic minority (the “Schiff Memo”). In response the president has neither declassified the memo nor objected in accordance with the rule.

Instead, by letter to HPSCI dated February 9, White House counsel Don McGahn explained that because “the public release of classified information by unilateral action of the Legislative Branch is extremely rare and raises serious separation of powers concerns, as the Constitution vests the President with the authority to control access to sensitive national security information . . . we are once again treating the Committee’s action as a request for declassification pursuant to the President’s constitutional authority.”  Moreover, although the president “is inclined” to declassify the Schiff Memo, he is “unable to do so at this time” because the memo “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” According to McGahn, President Trump “encourages” HPSCI to work with the Department of Justice to revise the Schiff Memo “to mitigate the risks identified by the Department,” and the “Executive Branch stands ready to review any subsequent draft” of the memo “for declassification at the earliest time.”

There is only one problem with this cooperative sounding letter. The House rule does not require any declassification decisions by the president or anyone else.  What it does require is an objection and specific certification by the president “personally and in writing.” These requirements are not satisfied by McGahn’s letter because McGahn is not the president and his letter does not contain the required certification.

McGahn’s position is that the executive branch will treat the HPSCI vote as if it were a request for declassification because otherwise HPSCI’s action would raise “serious separation of powers concerns.” This is a hitherto unknown means of constitutional avoidance. There was no ambiguity in HPSCI’s action and McGahn cannot pretend it did not happen because he thinks it might raise constitutional issues. It should be noted, moreover, that the executive branch has never before questioned the constitutionality of the House and Senate disclosure rules. McGahn’s only basis for doing so now is a single jump cite to Dep’t of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 527 (1988), a case which involved the executive branch’s authority to deny security clearance to its own employees.

HPSCI apparently wishes to work with the Department of Justice to ensure that nothing in the Schiff Memo jeopardizes national security. This is appropriate and reasonable. However, it is essential to protect its constitutional prerogatives that HPSCI make it clear it in no way accepts McGahn’s position with regard to the House rule. Once the five-day period expires, the executive branch has no standing to raise objections and HPSCI has no legal obligation to get permission from McGahn or anyone else before releasing the memo. Any redactions or other modifications that the committee wishes to make for national security reasons are entirely within its own discretion.

Standing Silliness in DC v. Trump

Last week I attended a part of the argument in DC v. Trump, one of three Emoluments Clause cases pending against President Trump. This case was brought by the governments of Maryland and the District of Columbia. It is being heard by Judge Messitte of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, who sits in Greenbelt, Maryland. The argument, which began around 10 am and was wrapping up when I left at 3pm, was focused solely on whether the plaintiffs had standing to bring the case. This is a lot of time to spend on standing, and a good deal of the argument got down into the weeds of the various components of standing (injury in fact, traceability, redressability, etc.).

The most important takeaway is that Judge Messitte is clearly not inclined to follow the lead of Judge Daniels in CREW v. Trump and dismiss the case for lack of standing, at least not at this stage. The judge at one point became so impatient with hearing about the CREW v. Trump opinion that he told defendant’s counsel “don’t cite Judge Daniels to me.”

Judge Messitte seemed to be starting from the presumption that if the Foreign and/or Domestic Emoluments Clauses were being violated (a question on which he did not, from what I heard, express an opinion), somebody ought to be able to go to court to complain about it. Since no one else had any better standing to sue than these plaintiffs, he might as well let them go forward. The court evidently viewed the question of standing to be a legal technicality or fiction, one that he was happy to help the plaintiffs figure a way around.

Certainly anyone listening to the argument would come away with the impression that standing doctrine is rather ridiculous. A good deal of the discussion focused on the claims of Maryland and DC that the Trump Hotel in DC had caused economic injury to various competitor hotels and restaurants in the surrounding area due to the Trump Hotel’s alleged advantages in securing business from state and foreign governments. This led to Judge Messitte asking whether the MGM Hotel in National Harbor (one of the properties where Maryland claimed to have an economic interest) would actually lose gambling revenue from the Trump Hotel given that the latter has no casino. And defendant’s counsel kept harping on the fact that the plaintiffs had provided anecdotal evidence of competitive injury only to the Ritz and the Four Seasons, which were not (at least according to him) among the competitors for which the plaintiffs could assert a derivative economic interest.

While I admit to not being an expert on standing or having read all of the cases discussed in the argument, this whole line of inquiry strikes me as rather silly. I assume that if one looked hard enough one could find some people who stayed or ate at the Trump Hotel, rather than a competitor, for reasons having to do with the fact that the former is associated with the president. It seems rather unlikely, however, that one could show that any competitor suffered a net economic injury in light of the fact that some people also undoubtedly chose not to frequent Trump’s hotel (or restaurants) for precisely the same reason. And even if an injury could be shown, it is hard to see it results from the fact that Trump has an ownership interest in the hotel, as opposed to the fact that his name is on it.

Far more importantly, any competitive injury suffered by other hotels and restaurants has nothing to do with the purposes of the Emoluments Clauses and is therefore not within the zone of interests protected by these provisions. To give an analogy, my wife loves the original BLT restaurant and would undoubtedly be interested in dining at the new BLT Prime in the Trump Hotel. By the logic of plaintiffs’ theory, I should be able to sue President Trump on the grounds that if his establishment were not as busy with foreign and state government visitors trying to curry his favor, it would be easier for me to get a dinner reservation. I assume that this argument would be laughed out of court, but I fail to see how it is any different than plaintiffs’ “competitive injury” theory.

Of the standing cases I heard discussed, the most relevant seems to me to be Schlesinger v. Reservists Comm. to Stop the War, 418 U.S. 208 (1974), a case in which the plaintiffs alleged that the Incompatibility Clause was violated by the fact that more than 100 members of Congress were in the reserves during the Vietnam War. Their alleged injury stemmed from the fact that this violation made Congress less independent of the executive branch and therefore more likely to support the war, thereby injuring plaintiffs as citizens and taxpayers opposed to the war. The district court accepted this theory of standing, finding the Incompatibility Clause to be a “precise and self-operative” provision designed to prevent the very type of harm asserted.

The Supreme Court, however, rejected the district court’s view of standing:

Furthermore, to have reached the conclusion that respondents’ interests as citizens were meant to be protected by the Incompatibility Clause because the primary purpose of the Clause was to insure independence of each of the branches of the Federal Government, similarly involved an appraisal of the merits before the issue of standing was resolved. All citizens, of course, share equally an interest in the independence of each branch of Government. In some fashion, every provision of the Constitution was meant to serve the interests of all. Such a generalized interest, however, is too abstract to constitute a “case or controversy” appropriate for judicial resolution. The proposition that all constitutional provisions are enforceable by any citizen simply because citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries of those provisions has no boundaries.

Closely linked to the idea that generalized citizen interest is a sufficient basis for standing was the District Court’s observation that it was not irrelevant that if respondents could not obtain judicial review of petitioners’ action, “then as a practical matter no one can.” Our system of government leaves many crucial decisions to the political processes. The assumption that if respondents have no standing to sue, no one would have standing, is not a reason to find standing.

Id. at 227-28.

The Emoluments Clauses, like the Incompatibility Clause, are “precise and self-operative” structural provisions designed to protect the independence of one branch of the federal government. This is an interest in which all citizens share equally, and therefore is too generalized a grievance to support standing. If this means that no one would have standing to sue (which, as I will discuss in a moment, it may not), that is not sufficient reason to find standing.

Of course, Schlesinger is not on all fours with DC v. Trump because the plaintiffs in Schlesinger asserted their actual grievance, rather than an interest trumped up (sorry) solely for purposes of the litigation. It is obvious that neither Maryland or DC has any actual interest in the “competitive injury” that the Trump Hotel allegedly inflicts. It is as if the Schlesinger plaintiffs, instead of asserting their actual grievance, had claimed injury by virtue of the fact they might lose out to a member of Congress for a coveted slot or promotion in the reserves. Such a move would not have worked, and should not work now, because the alleged grievance is not anywhere in the vicinity of the zone of interests protected by the constitutional provisions at issue.

I will say, however, that there was a part of the plaintiffs’ standing in DC v. Trump position that was at least somewhat persuasive. They made a strong argument, based on in large measure on Federalist No. 73, that the Domestic Emoluments Clause (which prohibits the president from receiving additional emoluments from the United States or any individual state) is designed in part to ensure that all states are treated equally. Thus, if one or more states were providing emoluments to the president, there is an argument that the other states suffer a cognizable injury distinct from the injury suffered by the public at large. Accordingly, there is a plausible basis for Maryland (not DC, which seems to keep forgetting that it is not a state) to assert standing with respect to the Domestic Emoluments Clause only.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that Judge Messitte will allow Maryland and DC to proceed on both the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clause claims. As there is no plausible standing theory on the former claim, and because Congress at any rate should be the arbiter of Foreign Emoluments Clause violations, it remains essential that Congress bestir itself to take action on this front.

Marking Time on the Nunes Memo (with update)

In the past few days a lot of people (relatively speaking) have been reading this post (“Congressional Release of Classified Information and the Speech or Debate Clause”), which discusses the process by which the House and Senate intelligence committees may release classified information to the public. This spike in interest, I presume, relates to the vote yesterday of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to release the “Nunes memo,” which details alleged abuses of the FISA process during the investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections.

My prior posts on this subject have focused on the Senate (mostly in connection with the release of the “torture memo”, see here, here, here and here), but the House procedure is basically the same as that of the Senate, except that there is no requirement that HPSCI consult with or notify the chamber’s leadership. Thus, as provided by House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(B), HPSCI “may disclose publicly” the Nunes memo “after the expiration of a five-day period following the day on which notice of the vote to disclose is transmitted to the President,” unless in the interim the president objects in the manner specified by the rule.

As far as I can tell, the memo was not transmitted to the White House yesterday, so lets assume it will be transmitted today (note there is no requirement that HPSCI transmit the memo within a specified period of time). When will the five day period expire? If one counted every calendar day, it would expire at midnight on Sunday, February 4, and the memo could be released as early as Monday, February 5. Traditionally, however, the House considers Sunday to be a “dies non” so it will almost certainly not count for the computation. I am less clear on whether Saturday would be counted. Often House rules provide that Saturdays and legal holidays (as well as Sundays) are not counted for purposes of computing days, but there is no such express provision in the rule governing HPSCI’s release of information. So I am not sure whether the Parliamentarians will count Saturday or not. Depending on the answer, the memo would be releasable on Tuesday or Wednesday, unless an objection is received from the president.

What happens if the five days expire with no objection? The rule says that HPSCI “may” disclose the information at that point. It does not say that it must do so. But who decides whether the memo will actually be released? The rule says the information may be released by the “select committee.” It could therefore be argued that an individual member still cannot release the memo until HPSCI itself takes some further action. This might be interpreted to require that the committee take another vote, but since the rule elsewhere specifies other votes the committee must take, it seems likely that no formal vote is required. The Parliamentarians may rule that the chair can release the memo on behalf of the committee, but no one else may do so without the permission of the chair or another vote of the committee.

What if the White House asks for more time to evaluate the memo? Nothing in the rule expressly allows for the five day period to be extended. If the chair controls the release, he can agree to delay until the White House has an opportunity to respond. But once the five days expire, it would appear that the memo is releasable, even if it is not actually released. Any objection received after the expiration of the five days is (at least arguably) ineffective. Thus, if any faction of HPSCI (or the House) wanted the memo released, they could argue that the president’s objections were invalid under the rule.

[update: the above assumes that the transmission of the memo and "notice of the vote to disclose" occur simultaneously. This makes a certain amount of sense since it would be pointless to transmit the notice of the vote without informing the president of what is to be disclosed, given that the purpose of the five day period is for the president to decide whether to object to disclosure. But it is possible that HPSCI could transmit the memo to the president without a formal notice of the vote to disclose, thereby delaying the commencement of the five day period. So this represents another uncertainty as to when exactly the memo can/will be released publicly.]

Sexual Harassment and the Office of Congressional Ethics

As you are no doubt aware, there has been a great deal of controversy in the past few months about Congress’s handling of internal employment issues, most notably sexual harassment claims. It is less likely you are aware that Congress has actually moved rather expeditiously to address the problem. Last week a bill to do just that was introduced in the House by Representatives Gregg Harper and Robert Brady, respectively the chair and ranking member of the Committee on House Administration. The bill is titled the “Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act,” H.R. 4822. (Someone could have put more effort into this “short title,” but we will refer to it simply as “CARA.”).

The Committee on House Administration has jurisdiction over House labor and employment issues, including the application of labor and employment laws to Congress through the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA). In the wake of widespread publicity about the handling of sexual harassment claims in Congress, the committee held hearings (November 14 and December 7, 2017) to address perceived weaknesses in the CAA and the need to prevent sexual harassment in the congressional workplace. The committee heard from various witnesses, including representatives of the Office of Compliance (OOC), the congressional agency responsible for administering and enforcing the CAA.

CARA addresses the problems identified in these hearings through various measures to better protect congressional employees from sexual harassment and other employment violations, including (1) establishing an Office of Employee Advocacy in the House to advise and assist employees with regard to rights and claims under the CAA; (2) authorizing the OOC General Counsel to conduct investigations of sexual harassment and other employment claims; (3) holding representatives and senators personally liable for awards and settlements arising from employment discrimination (including sexual harassment) or retaliation where their individual misconduct was involved; and (4) requiring the OOC to publish more detailed information about awards and settlements under the CAA.

My purpose here is not to analyze CARA’s proposed reforms or take a position on the bill. I merely observe that, on its face, CARA seems to be a textbook example of how “regular order” is supposed to work. Congress identifies a problem, holds hearings, and proposes a legislative solution, preferably reflecting a broad consensus within the committee of jurisdiction. CARA in fact is cosponsored by every member of the Committee on House Administration. It also very bipartisan, with 14 Republicans and 20 Democrats listed as sponsors or co-sponsors. Among them are the chair and ranking member of the House Ethics Committee and two of the most outspoken House members on the issue of sexual harassment, Representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA).

(Note: I have known Comstock since we both worked on the Hill in the 1990s and have supported her in races for state legislature and Congress).

Of course, the introduction of CARA is far from the end of the legislative process. The bill is now referred back to the Committee on House Administration and three other committees with some jurisdiction over its provisions (Ethics, Oversight and Government Reform and Ways & Means) where it can be further studied, amended and eventually marked up for consideration by the full House. There will be plenty of opportunities for further deliberation and changes in committee, not to mention (if it gets that far) on the House floor and in the Senate.

All of which makes it a little odd that the immediate reaction in the ethics/reform community to CARA was not applause (though my understanding is that it is generally supportive of the bill), but outrage directed at a single provision, Section 407, which is deemed to represent an insidious effort by the “House leadership” (though what the House leadership has to do with this, I am not sure) “to purposefully defang the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and undermine its role in upholding high ethical standards in the House of Representatives.”

So what exactly does Section 407 do? Continue reading ‘Sexual Harassment and the Office of Congressional Ethics’ »

Wright on Executive Privilege with Some Additional Thoughts Hazarded by Stern

Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in the Trump White House, has refused to answer questions from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) regarding his time in the White House and on the presidential transition team. Bannon claims these subjects may implicate executive privilege and is deferring to the White House counsel’s office as to whether the privilege will be invoked.

I was going to post some comments on this issue, but almost everything I was going to say is admirably covered by Professor Andy Wright here. Wright’s key points are (1) Bannon’s status as a former government official is irrelevant to the legal merits of the privilege claim, though it could impact how the matter is resolved procedurally (more on that in a minute); (2) the privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official; (3) it is thus appropriate to provide the president, with the advice of White House counsel and other executive branch lawyers, an opportunity to decide whether to invoke the privilege formally; (4) if negotiations do not resolve the issue, HPSCI must move forward with a formal contempt process; (5) while it may ultimately be decided that executive privilege does not attach to presidential transitions, the question at this point is an open one; and (6) even if the privilege does apply, HPSCI will still have strong arguments in favor of requiring Bannon to answer some or all of its questions.

One point of qualification. While I agree with Wright that issues of executive privilege have to be decided on a question-by-question basis, the burden is not on Bannon to make sure that specific questions get asked. In other words, if Bannon issued a “blanket refusal [to answer] about all swaths of time during his transition and White House roles,” as Wright indicates, it is still incumbent on HPSCI to make a record of the specific questions it wants answered. Failure to do so could undermine its legal position or delay resolution of the merits should the dispute reach the courts.

This brings us to the procedure HPSCI should employ to resolve this matter. As Wright notes, there are three avenues available (criminal contempt, civil litigation and inherent contempt). Each has its drawbacks and none is guaranteed to work (or work in a timely fashion) even if one assumes HPSCI would win the executive privilege issue on the merits.

As we discussed in connection with the Comey matter, however, the procedure followed with regard to a former official might differ from the norm. If Bannon takes the position that he will abide by HPSCI’s rulings on executive privilege unless otherwise directed by a federal court, the burden would be on the executive branch to bring a civil action and obtain a speedy order (presumably a TRO) directing Bannon not to testify.

On the other hand, Bannon might say that he will abide by the president’s instructions even if it means being held in contempt by HPSCI and the House. If so, the House could consider employing the rarest form of testimonial compulsion, inherent contempt. In this procedure, Bannon would be arrested by the Sergeant at Arms and brought before the bar of the House. If he continues to refuse to testify, the House could remand him into the custody of the Sergeant at Arms until he changes his mind (or convinces a court to release him on a habeas petition). This is a drastic remedy, which has not been employed by the House in about a century. But if the House is serious about reasserting its institutional prerogatives, there could hardly be a more inviting target than Mr. Bannon.

Anyway, there is something about incarcerating Bannon in the basement of the Capitol that seems like where 2018 is going, don’t you think?

P.S. RIP Geoffrey Hazard.



Don’t be a Potted Plant and Other Takeaways from CREW v. Trump

Judge Daniels of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has issued this opinion (hat tip: Eric Columbus) dismissing the Emoluments Clause lawsuit spearheaded by Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW). The court found that neither CREW nor its co-plaintiffs (individuals and businesses in competition with hotels and restaurants owned by the Trump Organization) had standing to sue President Trump for allegedly violating the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses.

Much of the court’s analysis is focused on explaining why the plaintiffs have not suffered legally redressable injuries from the alleged constitutional violations. Professor Jonathan Adler has a good summary of the court’s reasoning here, and I have nothing in particular to add with respect to that aspect of the opinion. I do, however, have a few additional observations.

First, while the court makes clear (see op. at 2, n.1) it is not addressing the merits of the case, I think one can sense some skepticism from the court about the plaintiffs’ theory of liability. The gravamen of their claims is that Trump’s “’vast, complicated and secret’ business interests are creating conflicts of interest and have resulted in unprecedented government influence in violation of the Domestic and Foreign Emoluments Clauses of the United States Constitution.” Op. at 1.

As the court notes, however, nothing in the Constitution prevents Trump from operating an extensive business empire that competes with CREW’s co-plaintiffs as to non-government business. Op. at 17. To the extent the Constitution might be construed to apply to business transactions with governmental entities, the effect on the Trump Organization would be largely incidental. As the court points out, even in that circumstance the Constitution would not prohibit the Trump Organization from doing business with foreign (or state) governments; it would simply prevent Trump from personally accepting income or profits from these transactions. Op. at 14 & n.3. Trump thus can fix any constitutional problem if he has not already, and Congress can waive any constitutional problem under the Foreign Emoluments Clause (FEC) anyway. Op. at 15. In short, Judge Daniels effectively rejects the notions that the Constitution prohibits the Trump Organization from operating during the Trump presidency or that Trump needs to divest himself of all interest in his businesses.

A second and more important takeaway from the opinion relates specifically to the FEC. Judge Daniels did not merely hold that these particular plaintiffs lack standing to sue. Instead, he found that any claim under the FEC would be non-justiciable. Op. at 25-26. As the court explains:

Here, the issue presented under the Foreign Emoluments Clause is whether Defendant can continue to receive income from his business with foreign governments without the consent of Congress. As the explicit language of the [FEC] makes clear, this is an issue committed exclusively to Congress. As the only political branch with the power to consent to violations of the [FEC], Congress is the appropriate body to determine whether, and to what extent, Defendant’s conduct unlawfully infringes on that power. If Congress determines that an infringement has occurred, it is up to Congress to decide whether to challenge or acquiesce to Defendant’s conduct. As such, this case presents a non-justiciable political question.

Op. at 26 (emphasis added).

In addition, the court found that plaintiffs’ claims were premature because Congress itself had taken no action with regard to Trump’s alleged violations of the FEC. (One might add that Congress had little opportunity to do so, given that CREW filed its lawsuit on the first day of the administration.) The result might be different, the court implied, if in the future Congress were to find Trump’s activities required congressional consent. Op. at 27-28. But it is not the court’s role to tell Congress what to do or “how it should or should not assert its power in responding to Defendant’s alleged violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause.” Id.

In a footnote, Judge Daniels underscored this point: “Congress is not a potted plant. It is a co-equal branch of the federal government with the power to act as a body in response to Defendant’s alleged Foreign Emoluments Clause violations, if it chooses to do so.” Op. at 28 n.8.

Needless to say (or, rather, as I have already said here and here), I am in strong agreement with the court’s approach to justiciability of the FEC claim. The House and/or Senate should give serious consideration to filing an amicus brief defending the court’s decision if and when CREW appeals to the Second Circuit.

Congress can also justify Judge Daniels’ confidence by demonstrating that it is not in fact a potted plant. It should initiate a review of Trump’s business interests to ensure there are adequate safeguards to prevent violations of the FEC or any other unacceptable conflicts of interest. Upon reflection, I think the best way to conduct a serious, nonpublic and nonpartisan review of this matter would be to entrust it to the GAO, possibly under the auspices of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Finally, I must note that Judge Daniels makes no mention of the theory, advanced by Professor Tillman as amicus curiae, that the FEC is inapplicable to the president, other than to note that “[f]or purposes of this motion, Defendant has conceded that he is subject to the Foreign Emoluments Clause.” Op. at 6 n.2. Make of this what you will, but perhaps it suggests the court was not bowled over by Tillman’s theory? As an exercise in reading tea leaves this seems as least as plausible as Tillman’s apparently inferring from these orders in District of Columbia v. Trump (another emoluments case) that Judge Messitte is interested in hearing more about his theory. But we will see.

“Nothing I have done as a senator, nothing, has brought dishonor on this institution . . .”

“And I am confident the ethics committee would agree.”

I was struck by these words from Senator Al Franken’s resignation speech (or perhaps semi-resignation speech) today. While Franken is to some extent denying the factual allegations (i.e., groping various women) made against him, the point of this particular line was to stress that he has done nothing “as a senator” to dishonor the Senate. One has to assume that he is saying that even if the allegations against him are true, they would not constitute “improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate,” as these words are used in S. Res. 338 (2)(a)(1). (Otherwise there would be no reason for the qualification “as a senator” in his statement.).

The Senate Ethics Manual makes clear a senator may be disciplined “for any misconduct, including conduct or activity which does not directly relate to official duties, when such conduct unfavorably reflects on the institution as a whole.” Senate Ethics Manual at 13; see also id. at 432-36 (reviewing conduct found by the Senate to constitute “improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate” or bring the Senate into “dishonor and disrepute”). But in all of the cases in which the Senate has taken disciplinary action, there has been at least some indirect connection between the misconduct and the senator’s official duties or status.

The most tenuous such connection was in the case of Senator Larry Craig, who was charged with a misdemeanor for soliciting sex in a men’s bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. The Senate ethics committee ultimately issued a letter of admonition to Craig over the incident, in which the committee found that Craig had improperly attempted to use his position to avoid being arrested and charged, and then had improperly attempted to avoid the consequences of his guilty plea.  The committee’s letter to Craig concluded that “[t]he conduct to which you pled guilty, together with your related and subsequent conduct as set forth above, constitutes improper conduct reflecting discreditably on the Senate.” (Yes, the committee used the word “pled,” which apparently means its letter was written by Donald Trump).

Simon Davidson, Roll Call’s ethics columnist, and I debated at the time whether the Craig case involved the first instance of the ethics committee punishing a senator in part for purely personal conduct (i.e., soliciting sex in a bathroom) or whether the committee’s action was dependent on Craig’s subsequent actions which involved conduct at least somewhat related to Craig’s official duties. My view was that the committee was in fact exercising jurisdiction over purely personal conduct, though attempting to downplay that aspect of its action. As I noted, “the committee understandably does not want to be in the business (or advertise that it is in the business) of investigating or punishing sexual misconduct or other common indiscretions by Senators.”

My broader interpretation of the Craig admonishment would support the committee’s exercise of jurisdiction in the Franken case, except for one very important distinction. Craig was a senator at the time he engaged in the misconduct. Franken was not. As mentioned in my last post, the Senate has never disciplined any senator for conduct that occurred before he or she entered the Senate. Moreover, it has on a number of occasions refused to do so precisely because of doubts about its jurisdiction over such matters.

The combination of the personal nature of Franken’s alleged misconduct and the fact that it occurred before he entered the Senate makes it highly questionable whether this is a matter that the ethics committee could even investigate based on past precedent. There is certainly no precedent that would support the imposition of any serious sanction based on the facts alleged, even if they are all true.

Which is perhaps why Franken wanted the matter before the ethics committee in the first place.