Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Congress.gov and Treaties

As many people involved in legal research know, Thomas.gov morphed into Congress.gov beginning in September 2012. Since that time, the Library of Congress (“LOC”) has transferred over the following databases to the new location: Legislation, the Congressional Record, Committee Reports and Nominations. In late March, the LOC added another database, and perhaps this is one that you would not normally connect with Congress.gov – Treaty Documents.


In exploring this most recent addition to Congress.Gov, I took the time to poke around in the links provided. I liked that the site links to other Treaty Resources on the Senate’s page. Under the link “how to research treaties,” the Senate site reminds us that: “In the United States, the word ‘treaty’ is reserved for an agreement that is made ‘by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate’ (Article II, section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution). When the Senate considers a treaty, it may approve it as written, approve it with conditions, reject and return it, or prevent its entry into force by withholding approval. The Senate historically has given its unconditional advice and consent to the vast majority of treaties submitted to it. International agreements not submitted to the Senate are known as “executive agreements” in the United States, but they are considered treaties and therefore binding under international law.”

It never hurts to be reminded about these things!

Back at the Congress.Gov Treaties page, it is further explained that treaties are referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where they may be considered and reported, and that the Senate can consider a treaty on the floor under similar procedures used for legislation. This last piece of information is useful because it can inform the way one searches for a treaty. As for the coverage available on Congress.gov: “(t)reaty documents are available … for all treaties submitted to the Senate since the 94th Congress (1975-1976). Treaties submitted prior to the 94th Congress are included if they were pending in 1975. One thing that you can use Congress.gov is to track treaties through the Senate. Unlike bills, which die at the end of a Congress if they have not received final disposition, treaties remain in the Committee on Foreign Relations until the Senate has completed action by agreeing to the resolution of advice and consent to ratification or by returning the treaty document to the President.

Also unknown to me, “since the 97th Congress [1981-1982], treaty numbers use the Congress and a sequential number, such as 106-13. Prior to the 97th Congress, treaty numbers used a letter, the Congress and session numbers: Ex. B, 96th Congress, 2nd Session.” Now, I am unsure at this point whether the sequential numbering system now in effect starts with “1” for the first treaty, or whether the treaty just takes its place in the normal numbering process. Any answers out there?

There are several ways to search for a treaty. The site permits one to search by treaty number and by search terms if one doesn’t happen to know the number. For example, on the opening page of Congress.gov, use the drop down menu to pull up the document category “Treaty Documents,” and enter search terms. I tried “dolphins” and got back “Convention Strengthening Inter-American Tuna Commission.” The first or summary record for this treaty gives information such as the date received from the President and the latest Senate action. Clicking into the hyperlink brings you to the overview page, a more thorough record that includes not only all actions taken by the Senate in considering the treaty, but also an Executive Report. That could be a helpful find since in this particular instance, the Report from the Foreign Relations Committee gives the purpose and background of the Treaty, and refers to testimony given during the review process, inter alia. From the overview page you have access to five tabs covering actions, text-resolution of ratification, text-treaty document (can include the transmittal letter from the President or Secretary of State), amendments and the "more info" tab.

I think you will agree that this is a valuable addition to Congress.gov, and one worth remembering when next you are looking for a treaty.

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