On Foreign Policy, Congress Still Follows the Leader
Despite the Iran review bill, President Obama has been gaining—not losing—power to negotiate and wage war abroad.
Don't be fooled by the Iran review bill. When it comes to foreign policy, Congress is still taking a backseat to President Obama.
On the Iran nuclear negotiations, authorizing war against Islamic radicals, and a major upcoming trade deal, Congress looks likely again—and again and again—to cede power to the executive.
The Iran bill, which passed the Senate Thursday, allows a month or so for Congress to review a nuclear deal and provide subsequent assessments to ensure compliance. Its teeth, a resolution of disapproval—an unlikely option—would prevent the president from waving his wand to lift the sanctions Congress itself passed.
"I think we have an opportunity to do something that really is in some ways a landmark piece of legislation," Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said before the 98-1 vote Thursday, adding that the bill has "basically taken back power" from the president. "At the end of the day, without this bill, there is no review of what happens relative to Iran.
"I think we can build from this and really bring the Foreign Relations Committee back to the place that it was decades ago," Corker added.
But even if Congress passed a resolution disapproving the deal, it's becoming increasingly clear that there likely aren't enough members to sustain a White House veto. On the same day as Senate passage, more than 150 House Democrats released a letter expressing their support for the president and his negotiations with Iran. So after all of the consternation by hawks like Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio over amendments, and all of the cajoling by Corker and others, Congress may simply once again allow the president wide discretion on a huge foreign policy matter.
The Senate conceded on some crucial demands even before the bill made it out of committee. One provision struck during negotiations would allow Congress simply not to respond to the deal, and another, more important one would prevent Congress from touching the administration's sanctions. Obama may not be "particularly thrilled" with the final language, as spokesman Josh Earnest said, but he now accepts it. Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, says that despite his public veto threat, Obama was "open" to the bill in their conversations about 10 days before the deal was struck.
Sen. Christopher Coons, a Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, which crafted the legislation, recalled that the president, vice president, and secretary of State had all urged him to oppose the bill, arguing that it would undermine negotiations.
"The president called and said, 'I really wish you wouldn't support this,'" Coons said. "That's about as direct as it gets. But that was months ago at this point … and I am comfortable that where we have ended up after a series of amendments in committee is with a bill that the White House can accept."
After the Iran debate is over, Congress will continue to take a secondary role on other major foreign policy issues.
Thursday was the nine-month anniversary of the day Obama announced airstrikes against the Islamic State, which cost about $9 million a day. Congress has not authorized the war despite some legal experts concluding that it's required for the new enemy. Obama, who sent his recommended authorization for military force draft in February, is fighting the Islamic State under an authorization granted to President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 to fight against al-Qaida.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a longtime advocate for a stronger legislative branch role in warmaking, took to the Senate floor Thursday to note the "strangely silent" Congress.
"Congress has said nothing and yet the war continues," Kaine said. "The president does not have the legal power to maintain this war without Congress. And yet, Congress, this Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama's use of executive power, even threatening him with lawsuits over immigration actions and other executive decisions, is strangely silent and allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined, and unchecked.
"Nine months of silence leaves the impression that Congress is either indifferent about ISIL and the threat that it poses or lacks the backbone to do the job that it is supposed to do," he added.
With upcoming deadlines on major transportation and intelligence bills, and a Republican-led effort to push through a trade bill, it's unlikely that Congress will do much on the AUMF in the near future. Obama's own legislative proposal was likely doomed from the moment it hit the Hill.
The issue splits both parties: Libertarian-leaning Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul are more in line with liberal Democrats than GOP leaders, who want an AUMF broader in scope than even the one Obama offered. Corker said Thursday that the president's proposal would have "no effect" on what's happening on the ground.
"There's not a single Democrat that supports the president's AUMF, and many Republicans are concerned that if they would supported it, it would show support for a strategy in Syria that doesn't exist," Corker said. "There is no strategy."
Cardin says he doesn't "share the optimism" of some of his fellow Democrats like Coons, who believes that the progress on Iran "raises the very real possibility" of taking up the AUMF debate.
"I think it will be very difficult," Cardin said of getting an AUMF this year. "I just think that the Republicans are all over the board on this and the easiest thing for them to do is nothing."
House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, has called on Obama to submit a new, stronger version of the use-of-force measure, saying he has no interest in passing a bill that gives the president less authority than he has now.
Republicans in Congress are also eager to give greater sway to Obama on trade. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to take up next a "fast track" bill that would limit debate in Congress by allowing the president to negotiate deals that could only be voted up or down without amendment. It could pave the way for a legacy-defining, wide-ranging pact with 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim this fall.
The vast majority of Democrats are opposed to the bill, known as Trade Promotion Authority, over environment and labor concerns among others. But pro-trade congressmen are sympathetic to the administration's argument that the U.S. can't negotiate in good faith if the final deal could be nitpicked by 535 members with their own local concerns. It's the same reason Congress in general defers to the White House on matters of foreign policy: There can be only one commander in chief.
When asked on Thursday if Obama has sidelined Congress on global affairs, Corker replied, "I don't even want to necessarily point to him.
"For some time, presidents have done a good job [of that]. Certainly the president has," Corker said. "I think it has been going on for some time."