Why Congress Grants Executive Discretion on Economic Sanctions

In July 2019, Turkey began receiving shipments of an advanced missile system from a Russian entity on a sanctions list kept by the U.S. Secretary of State. The creation of this list was mandated by a law enacted by the U.S. Congress to isolate Russia, Iran, and North Korea.  Turkey should face sanctions, and if the President is seen as soft in imposing them, Congress may intercede.  Turkey, and other states, are watching the U.S. reaction, and will determine future policies with it in mind.  

While there is general agreement that Congress is an important actor in foreign policy, relatively little work exists on the role the legislature plays in economic sanctions. We seek to move beyond partisan-lens and electoral pressure approaches by asking: how does Congress decide how much discretion to give the Presidency? Specifically, we want to know whether sanctions legislation is binding, and whether binding sanctions allow for waiver or certification authority. We argue that signalling to allies, treaty commitments, the presence of deterrence objectives, and the nature of the policy contingencies, inherent in a policy issue, jointly determine the type and degree of executive authority granted. We present evidence from a novel dataset, created directly from the completecorpus of government documents. We show how better understanding of the legislative designof economic sanctions matters for where to look for their success, and for our understanding ofsuccess, an enduring concern for policy-makers and scholars alike.

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