Congress Has an Overriding Problem With Iran Deal | Procedural Politics

Corker's bill is reportedly one vote short of a veto-proof majority in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Corker's bill is reportedly one vote short of a veto-proof majority in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:31pm

This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to consider the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act introduced by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. The bill requires the president to submit the final agreement to Congress for a 60-day review period. The administration strongly opposes the legislation on grounds the pact is an executive agreement between the U.S., Iran and the five other nations and does not require congressional approval.  

Contrary to some shorthand press reports, the bill does not require Congress to approve the nuclear agreement for the sanctions relief to take effect, nor does it force Congress even to vote on the matter. It simply provides that any sanctions relief contained in the plan may go forward if Congress enacts a joint resolution favoring the agreement or fails to enact a joint resolution disapproving the plan during the review period. There are no action-forcing mechanisms or expedited procedures to require either a vote of approval or disapproval.  

Congress may, in effect, take favorable action on the plan by inaction. The expedited procedures and mandatory votes would come later if Iran is found to be in material breach of the agreement as determined by the president (or if the president fails to certify Iran is in compliance). The majority or minority leadership of either chamber “may” then introduce legislation reinstating some or all of the statutory sanctions against Iran. The legislation would be put on a fast track through committee and onto the floor under tight time constraints with no amendments.  

The president has promised to more fully consult with Congress once a final agreement has been struck. But he says he does not foresee any need for Congress to act until it is called upon to repeal the statutory sanctions. In the meantime, relief is afforded by waiver authority given to the president in the various laws previously enacted that imposed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program and other transgressions.  

All the procedural hoops and reporting requirements in the Corker bill are primarily designed to ensure Congress plays a significant oversight role in superintending any agreement, without throwing major impediments in its way. The only procedural obstacle that really matters at this point is the president’s promised veto of the Corker bill if it is sent to the White House. Congress’ overriding problem will be overriding that veto.  

While Corker is reportedly only one vote short of a “veto-proof” two-thirds majority for his bill , those calculations only refer to senators, not House members. There have been no reported headcounts of House members on the bill, nor has any House member introduced a companion bill to Corker. Moreover, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has vowed to oppose the bill.  

A March 20 letter to the president sponsored by the chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and co-signed by 365 House members, did not advocate for the president sign the Corker bill or that he submit the agreement for congressional approval. The letter simply underscores the concern members have about Iran’s unreliability as an international actor and reminds the president that “Congress must be convinced that …[the agreement’s] terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb,” concluding that, “only then will Congress be able to consider permanent sanctions relief.”  

The current debate over Congress’ proper role in the Iran nuclear deal is distorted by those who depict critics in Congress as being driven solely by partisanship or Congress as improperly meddling in sensitive international relationships. We have come a long way since treaties requiring Senate advice and consent were thought to be the constitutional way to conclude agreements with other nations. It is doubtful the founders ever dreamed Congress could one day be completely shut-out from making this country’s international commitments.  

Congress still has a vital role to play in foreign affairs both in reflecting popular sentiment and in checking executive miscues and excesses. The administration should have begun consulting with Congress on the Iran negotiations long ago to avoid at least some of the confusion and consternation now plaguing members over perceived fault lines in the agreement.  

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1947-48, Michigan Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg advocated a bipartisan foreign policy that is best captured in his oft-repeated but seldom heeded words: “We must stop politics at the water’s edge.” However, he also insisted that Congress be fully consulted and engaged in “free debate determining our position.” As he put it (paraphrasing Harold Stassen), Congress must be in on the takeoff as well as the crash landing. His advice is just as timely today.  

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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