CONGRESS AND the White House have long bickered over who has primacy in foreign affairs. The constitution, for example, grants Congress the power to declare war, but presidents have often initiated hostilities without authorisation. One way Congress asserts its authority is by approving the president’s senior appointments. For recent administrations the confirmation process has taken on average more than 110 days for each appointment, twice as long as it did 40 years ago. Some issues cannot wait. So presidents have turned to special envoys, especially for urgent missions. Joe Biden is no different. Some of his special envoys are tasked with leading international efforts to slow climate change, negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran and reducing migration from Central America. Most recently, on June 25th, he appointed Jessica Stern as his special envoy to advance LGBTQ rights around the world. Who are these envoys and what power do they have?
George Washington set the precedent in 1790 when he dispatched Gouverneur Morris, a founding father known for writing the preamble to America’s constitution, as a “private agent” to settle details of the peace treaty with England and enquire about a trade agreement. As Washington unofficial representative, Morris could carry out informal negotiations and keep the president apprised of the “sentiments and intentions” of the British.
Special envoys have since evolved into a versatile tool of American diplomacy. They can also be called special representatives, co-ordinators or negotiators. Their political clout is determined less by rank than by how invested the president is in their assignment. Presidents often use them to assign prominence to international crises and signal their priorities. Special envoys also organise efforts across federal agencies on specialised issues—such as hostage negotiations—and open diplomatic channels where none officially exists, as with Iran and North Korea. At times their work has been instrumental in foreign conflicts. George Mitchell, sent by Bill Clinton as a special envoy to Northern Ireland, helped to negotiate a peace agreement that ended decades of violence there.
Not everyone is a fan. Some foreign-service officers have complained about the overuse of special envoys, saying that they create confusion, fit badly into the State Department’s structure and lower morale in its ranks. Barack Obama’s administration, for example, at one point had more than 30 envoys—about two-thirds of whom had no foreign-service background. In 2014 the American Foreign Service Association, a guild for career diplomats, recommended paring back the long list, arguing that only a handful are needed and they should be assigned term limits. And some envoys have expressed frustration about not receiving clear instructions for their assignments or having the authority to complete them. Philip Habib, Ronald Reagan’s choice to help mediate a civil war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, quit because the president and conservative hawks wanted to topple Daniel Ortega’s regime while he tried to negotiate a truce.
Most significantly, some members of Congress and legal experts maintain that appointing special envoys without the Senate’s consent violates the constitution’s Appointments Clause. The question is partly one of semantics. Presidents are empowered to appoint “inferior Officers”, whom Justice Antonin Scalia defined in 1997 as “officers whose work is directed and supervised at some level” by public officials nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. However, “Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls…and all other Officers” require the Senate’s approval. Whether a special envoy is considered an “inferior officer”, or even to hold an office at all, has long been debated. Critics contend that some special envoys wield executive authority.
In recent years, lawmakers in both the Senate and the House have attempted to include restrictions on special envoys’ appointments and terms through a State Department authorisation bill, which sets out the broader priorities of the agency. Congress is supposed to pass such a bill every two years, but it last managed it in 2002. Mr Biden inherited about a dozen special envoys from the Trump and Obama administrations. In his first hundred days in office, he created four new special envoy roles; another 34 previously established positions remain vacant. If his predecessors are any indication, more appointments will follow.