Making Sense Of The Emoluments Clause

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When laws started getting passed in my city that I didn't agree with, I decided that I had to take a stand. Instead of going with the flow, I thought about running for office to have more of a say as far as what got passed. It was a lot of work to campaign for city council, but when I finally got in, I was amazed to see how much of a difference I could make. I was able to campaign for better laws and actually change the way that they did things in our city--saving everyone time and money. This blog is all about making a difference in your community.

Making Sense Of The Emoluments Clause

15 February 2017
 Categories: Government & Politics, Blog


One of the clauses of the Constitution is the foreign-emoluments clause. This clause restricts those holding office in the United States from accepting presents, Emoluments, titles, or offices from a head of state. The only exception is if Congress explicitly consents. An emolument is any benefit that would result from dealings with a foreign government.

The Rational

This provision is included with the goal of making sure that foreign entanglements and gifts do not cause a U.S. official to not be sufficiently loyal to the United States. Otherwise, those who hold foreign positions or who are receiving substantial financial compensation would be influenced and may make decisions that would not be in the best interests of the country they are elected to serve, and this could be considered a form of corruption.

The Consequences Of Violating The Clause

Since presidents in the past have faced these challenges, the only option is for president to divest into a blind trust or something that is considered to be a legal equivalent. If something like this isn't done and the official receives payments or other financial benefits, even if these payments are the result of the politician's prior business connections, the result may be a lawsuit. The consequence would be an order for the official to stop receiving payments, rather than monetary damages. However, there are many reasons for why a lawsuit like this might be struck down.

For example, if the government official is not actually receiving the payments, but rather a corporation, it may be ruled that this is not in violation of the provision. This is because corporations are treated as separate entities. Even if it may not be in violation of the provision, though, it may still constitute an ethical concern. The foreign official would still benefit, especially if he or she owns substantial shares in the company despite it no longer being run by that official. 

The Law Is Murky

Another challenge is whether money that is accepted by a politician is connected to a foreign government. For example, president Obama received money for his noble peace prize and the Justice Department wrote a memo that stated that it was acceptable for Obama to take the prize money because it was not connected to a government. There are some who also argue that the office that is referred to in the clause does not refer to the presidency.

For more information about politics and ethics, consider talking with a board of trustees member, such as Katharine Hamilton.