Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Karma is a tricky business, especially in politics.
The White House is not wrong, exactly, to be outraged that 47 Senate Republicans bypassed the president to write an open letter to Iran’s leaders, warning them that any deal with President Obama could conceivably be undone by Congress or the next president. The administration feels, with good reason, that the letter overstepped congressional privileges and infringes on the president’s power to conduct foreign policy.
But it is a tough argument for his administration to make convincingly.
This is an administration that decided, on its own, to issue work permits for people who are in the country illegally - a position that nearly led to a funding cutoff for the Department of Homeland Security. It is one thing for the administration to decide it doesn’t want to devote the resources to deport undocumented residents; it’s quite another to say that those residents ought to be allowed to work here. Not that the position is bad, necessarily. It is simply one on which the president should have worked with and through Congress. But since it is one that the White House couldn’t get through Congress if it tried, and the president saw both political and policy benefits in acting unilaterally, that is exactly what he decided to do.
What is sauce for the presidential goose is likewise sauce for the congressional gander.
The letter to Iran, organized by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., was explicitly designed not only to discourage Iranian leaders from agreeing to a deal, but also to pressure the president to include Congress in the negotiations. It was a public vote of no confidence in Obama with respect to Iran, and not without reason. It is hard to imagine that Obama could have accomplished more for the Iranian regime’s benefit in the past six years if that were actually his intention. Beginning with his abandonment of European-based missile defense and his tepid support of pro-democracy demonstrators in 2009, continuing with his military pullout from Iraq - now a bastion of Iranian regional influence, except for the large swath that is locked in the madhouse of the Islamic State group - and into the ongoing nuclear negotiations, which are apparently set to leave Iran with a substantial atomic capability and an untouched missile program, Obama has been an effective if unwitting benefactor of Tehran’s ambitious clerics.
While senators from both parties have spoken about the need for congressional review of any arms deal with Iran, Senate Democrats took the president’s side over the open letter. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told The New York Times, “We can disagree about the specifics, but we still have to honor the institution of the presidency.” In principle, he is right: We are strongest when we speak with and through one voice. But in speaking for us, that voice needs to take our views into account.
The White House wants to have it both ways. It is a bit late to draw a hard line about the separation of powers after years of using executive orders and other methods to putter in Congress’ legislative kitchen. Witness, for example, the dozens of unilateral changes to the operation and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. While some flexibility in executing the laws passed by Congress is necessary, the administration has pushed that flexibility well past the breaking point.
This situation did not arrive out of the blue. The administration’s disrespect for Congress’ role in setting national policy has left legislators without either trust or political incentive to defer to the commander in chief in running foreign affairs.
For starters, Obama and his team should recognize that Congress is entitled to listen to whoever it wants. The White House’s pique over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech was ill-founded, and helped turn the Iran negotiations into a partisan issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was one of the 47 signers of the open letter, said, “I think all of us should be suspicious of an administration that’s so intent on keeping the elective representatives of the American people out of this deal.” The White House’s pushback on the Netanyahu speech lent support to McConnell’s observation.
Vice President Biden, in a statement released in response to the letter, maintained that it would undermine the ability of future presidents of either party to negotiate with foreign leaders on the country’s behalf. Some critics of the Senators’ action have suggested it may not only violate constitutional limits on Congress’ involvement in foreign policy, but an 18th century law called the Logan Act. While Cotton and his fellow Senators will almost certainly not be prosecuted, the open letter could still have profound and long-lasting effects on how U.S. foreign policy is made.
If the president wants Congress to respect traditional boundaries of policymaking responsibility, he needs to show the same respect. The entire affair speaks to how little Congress trusts this president to mind any interests other than those he seems to think serve his political and personal legacy.