Netanyahu’s Visit and the Executive Power to Receive Foreign Leaders

by Reihan Salam

When I first learned that House Speaker John Boehner had invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting the White House, I had no objection, not least because I’m an admirer of Netanyahu and I felt that Congress could benefit from hearing him make his case on the Iranian threat to Israeli and American interests. Of course, plenty of smart people have made the case against Netanyahu’s visit. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, for example, has argued that Netanyahu is risking his relationship with the White House, and with U.S. Democrats and left-of-center Jewish Americans more broadly, by defying Obama’s wishes so brazenly. But even if Goldberg is right, this demonstrates that Netanyahu was wrong to accept Boehner’s invitation, not that Boehner was wrong to extend it.  

The argument that has resonated with me is a constitutional one recently raised by Michael D. Ramsey of the University of San Diego School of Law — according to Ramsey, Congress is violating the Constitution because it does not have the power to host a foreign leader, and the reception of foreign leaders is an exclusive power of the President:

The President’s power here is properly understood as exclusive – both because that is how the reception power has traditionally been regarded since the Washington administration and because that is the implication of specifically calling it out in Article II. Consider the other presidential powers specifically identified in Article II: to make treaties (subject to Senate approval); to nominate judges, ambassadors and other executive officers; to make recess appointments; to execute the law; to commission officers of the United States – all are exclusive. So too is the reception power, which is granted in parallel with these powers.

Of course, a foreign leader may appear before Congress at the invitation of the President (as has happened many times in the past). The President’s reception and communication powers include the power to decide how an ambassador or foreign minister shall be received and with whom he should communicate; the President might think an appropriate reception should include an appearance before Congress. I see no constitutional difficulty with that determination. The present case is different, though, because Congress cannot rely on the President’s reception power for authorization.

Has Boehner offered a convincing counterargument as to why Congress does have the right to host a foreign leader? 

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