Submitted by: Veronica Coffin
I’m in Gomorrah by the Potomac this weekend at the National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit. As you’d expect, one of the ideas coming in for a good deal of scrutiny is the Corker bill — the legislation proposed by Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) that purports to give Congress an opportunity to review President Obama’s imminent, disastrous nuclear deal with Iraq.
As a New Yorker, I have as my default setting: stay out of Washington. But defaults are made to be broken. From a comfortable remote, it is too easy a thing to dismiss this place as a lost cause for conservatives. From up close, though, it is plain to see that many of the bad ideas that come out of Washington — which often seems like a bad-idea assembly line — result from the frustration of doing battle, day in and day out, with both a destructive presidential administration and a Democratic party that has been commandeered by the hard Left. The Corker bill is one of those bad ideas.
As I recount in Faithless Execution, the framers had a prescient fear of ideological factions. They understood that factions would be more intent on acquiring power and imposing their pieties than on preserving the Constitution’s meticulous separation of powers, the design that guards against accumulation of tyrannical power by any single governmental component. To function properly, the officials in each separate branch must defend their powers from encroachments by the other branches — a legislator, for example, must be incentivized to defend the institution of Congress from executive usurpations. The movement Left, however, is most interested in imposing its agenda; it thus shifts power to whatever branch has the best potential to do that — which is the presidency when it is held by a leftist.
Today’s Democrats are not interested in defending the powers and prerogatives of Congress (or, for that matter, of the courts). They are interested in achieving Obama’s priorities, which are their ideological priorities — or, at least, those of the hard-Left base that now runs the party. Congressional Democrats are thus content to forfeit the powers that enable Congress to stop harmful presidential policies, like negotiations that enrich and abet Iran, an incorrigible American enemy.
This puts Republicans in a hard spot. They want to prevent Obama from making the Iran deal. Even with control of Congress, however, they see no practical way to stop the negotiations, force Obama to disclose the agreement, or compel him to treat any agreement as a formal treaty — i.e., as a nullity unless it is approved by a two-thirds supermajority of the Senate.
The Corker bill is a mistake born of their frustration.
Supporters are telling themselves that the Corker bill’s benefits are twofold: the president will have to produce the agreement, and Congress — not just the Senate but the full Congress — would get a chance to vote on it. But this is a mirage, which is exactly why Obama now supports Corker’s legislation after initially promising to veto it. It should tell Republicans all they need to know that Obama is willing to sign a bill the stated purpose of which is to rein in Obama. The bill has to be fatally defective.
And so it is. The president is notoriously lawless, and thus Republicans can have no confidence that the agreement he produces to Congress will, in fact, be the final deal he signs off on with Iran and, significantly, submits to the U.N. Security Council for an endorsing resolution.
But let’s assume for argument’s sake that Obama gives Congress the actual, final agreement. The fact that Congress gets to vote on it does not mean Republicans can stop it.
Instead of being considered a treaty, the Iran deal would be considered as regular legislation, which means Democrats could stop the Senate from voting on it at all.
Instead of being considered as a treaty, which would require Obama to persuade 67 senators to approve it, the Iran deal would be considered as regular legislation. That means Democrats could stop the Senate from voting on it at all: the 54 seats Republicans control are enough for a majority but six shy of the 60 necessary to invoke cloture and force a vote. Moreover, even if Democrats deign to allow a vote, Obama will simply veto any “resolution of disapproval” Republicans manage to pass.
Republicans would need 13 Democrats in the Senate and 43 in the House to defect from Obama in order to override the veto. That will never happen. On that score, I cannot help but note an irony.
In Faithless Execution, I point out that impeachment is one of the few ways Congress can rein in an imperious president, but I contend that moving to impeach President Obama would be counterproductive unless the public was first convinced that his removal from office was warranted. Many Republicans nonetheless chastised me for broaching the subject of impeachment at all. With congressional Democrats controlled by the hard Left, they reasoned, it would never be possible to drum up 67 Senate votes for Obama’s removal even if the public mood suddenly demanded it.
Yet now, leading Republicans are rallying to support the Corker bill, even though it cannot succeed in blocking the Iran deal unless Republicans not only find 67 Senate votes but also 290 House votes. That is, the Corker bill has even less chance of success than impeachment, which requires only a simple majority (218 votes) in the House.
As I argued in Faithless Execution, it would be a mistake to impeach the president out of frustration: Even if he deserves to be removed for abusing his powers, he would win an impeachment trial in the Senate, and that victory would encourage more abuse of power by confirming that he is invulnerable.
Similarly, it would be a mistake to pass the Corker bill out of frustration: The failure to enact a resolution of disapproval after consideration by the full Congress would give Obama’s Iran deal the patina of legislative approval. It would bolster the Security Council’s rationale for endorsing the deal. It would encourage other countries to drop their sanctions against Iran. It would undermine the next president’s ability to renounce the deal.
So what should Congress do? It should lean on the Constitution rather than scrapping it as Corker’s legislation effectively does. In our system, Obama simply does not have the power to bind the United States unless Congress helps him — he knows that, and it is a big part of the reason he reversed himself and decided to support the Corker bill.
So don’t help him. To the contrary, Congress should use its power to marginalize Obama, just as Obama has marginalized lawmakers. He may have the advantage at the moment, but he is a short-timer and the mullahs know they will have to deal with Republicans — in Congress and, hopefully, in the White House — once he is gone.
What’s done is done on the sanctions currently in law. They provide for presidential waivers, which this president has invoked — even as the mullahs promote terror, imprison Americans, and cheat on uranium enrichment. Obama is not going to change, and Congress will not be able to ratchet the sanctions up until we have a new president.
In our system, Obama simply does not have the power to bind the United States unless Congress helps him. So don’t help him.
Still, Congress can pave the way for a new president. Republicans can pass resolutions expressing the sense of both the House and the Senate that President Obama does not have the unilateral authority to strike a binding agreement with Iran — particularly one that commits the United States to removing legislatively enacted sanctions or to abiding an Iranian nuclear program of any kind.
Among the worst aspects of the Corker bill is that it has, toward no good end, turned Republicans against each other on matters on which they should be speaking with one voice. With embarrassing GOP help this week — given, I can only assume, out of leadership’s well-meaning but pie-in-the-sky hope that the Corker bill’s “bipartisan spirit” would somehow peel off enough Democrats to vote down the Iran deal — Democrats beat back amendments that would have (a) reaffirmed that international agreements must comply with the Constitution’s treaty-ratification procedure, and (b) insisted that no deal would be acceptable absent Iran’s abandonment of terrorism, disavowal of death-to-America rhetoric, recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and release of American prisoners.
If Republicans abandon the futile Corker bill, they can get back on the right side — unified — on all those critical points. They can pass bills that specify these conditions as non-negotiable; they can force Democrats to vote on them and Obama to veto them. Let Democrats try to explain to Jewish supporters why they oppose telling jihadist Iran that it must accept Israel; let Democrats try to explain to the country why they want to accommodate — on nuclear weapons, of all things — a totalitarian theocracy that remains a lifeline for anti-American terrorism.
By abandoning the Corker bill, Congress can put the Security Council on unambiguous notice that our Constitution, not the U.N. Charter, is the preeminent law of our land. Under it, any pact Obama makes with Iran but fails to ratify after Senate approval is a mere executive agreement. It is unenforceable and it can be renounced at any time. That would let the world know that in just 20 months, when a president committed to reestablishing American leadership takes the helm, Obama’s deal will be null and void. Countries should not act in reliance on it, for they do so at their peril.
The Security Council, too, will have been warned that the next American administration will honor our Constitution even if the current one does not. Therefore, if the U.N. wants its resolutions respected, it should base them only on binding American agreements — which Obama’s Iran deal will not be.
By taking these steps, congressional Republicans would give Republican presidential candidates the best of both worlds: a clear, winning policy message to run on; and a post-election mandate to renounce Obama’s deal and take a hard line with the world’s most noxious regime. They would highlight Hillary Clinton’s key role in Obama’s disastrous foreign policy, while putting Democrats in the awkward position of distancing themselves from Obama’s Iran deal or risking the voters’ wrath.
Of course we are frustrated. Obama is president and we cannot stop him from making a bad deal with a bad regime. But we could make it a fleeting deal and minimize the damage. The goal is not to defeat Obama today; it is to prevent his reckless appeasement of Iran from doing permanent harm. The Corker bill guarantees permanent harm.
This column was originally published at National Review.