Kevin Cope

Congress’s International Legal Discourse

Michigan Law Review


Despite Congress’s important role in upholding U.S. international law obligations, the relevant existing literature largely ignores the branch. This omission may stem partly from the belief, common among both academics and lawyers, that Congress is generally unsympathetic to or ignorant of international law. Under this conventional wisdom, members of Congress would rarely if ever imply that international law norms should impact otherwise desirable domestic legislation. Using an original dataset comprising thirty years of legislative histories of pertinent federal statutes, this Article questions and tests that view. The evidence refutes the conventional wisdom. It shows instead that, in legislative debates over bills whose enactment arguably triggers international law violations, members of Congress urge international law compliance relatively often, using rhetorical framing devices similar to those that members use for comparable constitutionally problematic bills. The arguments are overwhelmingly supportive of international law and often phrased in legalistic terms. The evidence suggests, moreover, that such international law invocation may be partially motivated by political self-interest. These findings, together with existing literature and qualitative evidence from former policymakers, imply that members of Congress may be incentivized to take public pro-international law positions by international law-minded executive officials. In this way, the executive may use the legislature to reinforce the national commitment to international law obligations. Through this interbranch bargaining, the president might use congressional international law discourse to boost the country’s international credibility and strengthen her office’s own hand in making and enforcing future commitments.


Kevin Cope, Congress’s International Legal Discourse, 113 Michigan Law Review 1115-1174 (2015).

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