President Obama is not merely opposed to a role for Congress. He's ready to veto legislation providing for an up-or-down vote on any nuclear agreement with Iran, even if the vote is nonbinding. Why? "Because it would .??.??. negatively impact our ability to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program and to implement a future deal," White House press secretary Josh Earnest explained.
That's not all. "A congressional vote on a nonbinding instrument is not required by law and could set an unhelpful precedent for other negotiations that result in other nonbinding instruments," he said. Besides, "Congress has had its say," since members of Congress have been kept "in the loop on the status" of the talks with Iran.
Obama protests too much. There's something fishy about his insistence on stiffing Congress. He has no history of opposing congressional intervention in foreign affairs. On the contrary, it was Obama who pleaded for a congressional vote last year on whether to punish Syria with a bombing attack after it had used a chemical weapon to kill civilians. A congressional vote wasn't required or even contemplated until the president spoke up. After Congress declined to vote, Obama called off the attack.
In the case of Iran, the president and his State Department subordinates have a more serious fear than disrupted negotiations or bad precedents. It's that Congress would lay out the deal's flaws and unrequited concessions, then reject it outright. Even a nonbinding resolution of disapproval could make it politically impossible for Obama to move ahead to implement the deal.
Well-publicized hearings could be especially difficult for the administration. How do you explain the trajectory of the talks from the initial goal of dismantling Iran's nuclear facilities to settling today for an Iran on the brink of becoming a nuclear power? Arguing that the only alternative is war with Iran won't carry the day.
The idea of engaging Congress was introduced by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. He cosponsored a bill last year based largely on section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act. It mandates that any "significant" American nuclear cooperation with other countries comply with specific criteria and be submitted to Congress. It gives Congress 90 days to consider the agreement. If it fails to disapprove, the deal goes into effect. The Corker bill was never voted on.
But it's back in the new Congress, where Corker is now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's likely to introduce legislation similar to last year's shortly and before Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress on March 3 on the Iranian threat.
The administration is already lobbying against Corker. At a Foreign Relations hearing in January, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken contended the legislation would trample on longtime presidential prerogatives and cause trouble with testing Iran's compliance with a deal.
Corker wasn't impressed, and for good reason. "Objections such as Blinken's are difficult .??.??. to take very seriously," Yishai Schwartz wrote in Lawfareblog. "Congress constantly weighs in on everything from trade deals to fishing agreements." The Atomic Energy Act is "ample precedent for mandating congressional discussion of the United States' most important agreements," Schwartz added.
"I want these negotiations to be successful," Corker said, "but just stiff-arming [Congress] .??.??. and saying 'no, we really don't want you to play a role, we want you to just trust us' is totally unacceptable from my standpoint. .??.??. I would just argue that having Congress as a backstop as you enter these final steps [of negotiations] would be somewhat of an anchor to keep us from continuing to move toward Iran's position."
Obama should know better than to think a deal with as treacherous and untrustworthy a regime as Iran's would be automatically accepted at home. Earlier presidents turned to Congress for help.
In 1972, President Nixon signed the SALT nuclear arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. It was a military agreement, not a treaty. So ratification by Congress wasn't necessary. But SALT was controversial, and Nixon asked for a vote in Congress. Once it passed, SALT was no longer a source of political conflict. In 1991, many of President Bush's advisers believed he should not seek congressional approval of the first Gulf war. Bush thought otherwise. War with Iraq was approved overwhelmingly in the House, narrowly in the Senate. The vote served as a vehicle for national acceptance.
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, is reported to have likened a nuclear accord with Iran to Obama-care. The health care act was Obama's greatest achievement in his first term, and the Iran deal would be the greatest in his second.
Rhodes missed something important. Obamacare is a matter of angry conflict because it was shoved through Congress. No Republican voted for it. Had Obama sought to compromise with Republicans, it wouldn't have taken much in the way of concessions. And Republicans some of them anyway would be co-owners of Obamacare today. And for all its malfunctions, it wouldn't have a party dedicated to repealing and replacing it. There's a simple rule: The bigger the issue, the more it needs bipartisan support.
Obama's mistake was to have negotiated an enormously consequential deal without congressional approval in mind. Or so it appears. He can veto Corker's bill allowing an up-or-down vote. But that will only make public acceptance of his Iran deal all but impossible.