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Executive Agreement: Definition & Examples

Executive Agreement: Definition & Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea Stephenson

Andrea has a Juris Doctor and has spoken at legal conferences on government transparency.

Learn about executive agreements, including who has the power to enter into them and where the authority derives from. Then look at some examples of executive agreements that have been entered into by past presidents.

What Is an Executive Agreement?

An executive agreement is an agreement entered into between a foreign government and the executive branch of the United States. Although the agreement binds the United States with as much force as a treaty, it is not actually as formal as a treaty and does not require Senate approval.

Executive Agreement Authority & Use

The president of the United States possesses the authority to enter into executive agreements. However, this power does not derive from the U.S. Constitution. The power to enter into a particular executive agreement flows from one of two sources:

  1. Authorization by Congress
  2. The president's inherent power to manage foreign relations with other countries

The U.S. Supreme Court determined that executive agreements hold the same weight as treaties in its 1937 decision in United States v. Belmont, 301 U.S. 324. However, executive agreements are not binding on subsequent presidents unless they are authorized by Congress.

Use of executive agreements gained popularity after 1939. In fact, before 1940, presidents made approximately 1,200 executive agreements and signed almost 800 treaties. However, from 1940-1989, the presidents entered into more than 13,000 executive agreements and still signed only 800 treaties.

Executive Agreement Examples

Congress authorized presidents to enter into a number of executive agreements, including the annexation of both Texas and Hawaii into the United States. One of the first executive agreements authorized by Congress gave the U.S. Postal Service the permission to negotiate arrangements with the postal services of foreign countries. to establish receipt and delivery of letters and packages to overseas addresses through such foreign postal services.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), entered into on January 1, 1994, is another example of an executive agreement entered into with Congressional authority. NAFTA was originally negotiated by the president and then submitted to Congress for approval. NAFTA was entered into between the U.S., Canada and Mexico and created the largest free trade area in the world for import and export between the countries of goods and services.

Executive Agreements Entered Into on Presidential Power

Many agreements have been entered into on sheer presidential power as well. After the beginning of World War II, but prior to America joining in the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive agreement with the United Kingdom, obligating the United States to give 50 over-age destroyer vessels to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom reciprocated by giving the United States leases on certain Atlantic British naval bases for 99 years.

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