Congressional Update – Week Ending May 11, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

H.R. 5677. On May 7, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Ed Royce (R-California) introduced a bill to revise the authorities that allow for the United States to provide security assistance to other states. Though the bill amends previous arms sales statutes in order to reform the sales process, it could result in US allies around the world, including in the Middle East and North Africa, to more easily purchase weapons, munitions, and other equipment in the name of security. The bill also authorizes the president to sell a decommissioned naval frigate called the USS Robert G. Bradley to Bahrain. The bill will next get a full House vote.

H.R. 5141. The HFAC amended and approved a bill previously introduced by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) that authorizes security assistance between the United States and Israel. The bill reauthorizes some previous provisions to allow for the United States to provide Israel with security assistance, precision-guided missiles, and loan guarantees for security needs. This bill also moves forward for a vote before the House.

2) Hearings

Confronting the Iranian Challenge. On May 8, the HFAC held a committee hearing to discuss effective means for challenging threats posed by Iran. Normally, this hearing would have focused on how to confront Iran’s non-nuclear behavior, but because President Trump was making his decision on the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), committee members and witnesses spent considerable time discussing the nuclear deal and why the president should not withdraw the United States from it. The panel’s witnesses included Lincoln Bloomfield, Jr. of the Stimson Center, Stephen Rademaker of Covington & Burlington, LLC, and former Congresswoman Jane Harman of the Wilson Center.

Almost everyone was in agreement that although the JCPOA is flawed and does not address the full range of Iranian threats, the United States should remain committed to the deal. The panelists outlined a number of possible adverse effects of reneging on the deal as well as ways that Congress can get involved in helping supplement the JCPOA and address the president’s concerns. They also predicted that the United States would lose credibility with its international partners and leverage over Iran if it withdrew from the deal. Additionally, Iran could resume its nuclear activities, with few—or no—restraints, and potentially set forward a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Finally, the panelists were concerned that abrogating the deal would ultimately harm the presidency as an institution by reducing the power of executive-level agreements and diplomacy.

The speakers offered suggestions to Congress before President Trump announced his decision, so the recommendations were offered before the pullout from the JCPOA. The experts suggested that Congress reassert itself in the discussion by amending the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) so the president is not forced to renew waivers as frequently. In addition, they said that Congress should codify measures that address some of the president’s concerns, particularly prohibitions on ballistic missile development and sanctions that take effect if Iran pursues a nuclear weapon. Lastly, perhaps out of suspicion that President Trump would withdraw the United States from the deal and potentially cause serious tensions, Harman suggested that Congress regain its rightful place and pass an authorization of military force (AUMF) that limits what military action the president can pursue.

Gina Haspel Testifies to Head the Central Intelligence Agency. On May 9, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a confirmation hearing for Gina Haspel to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Haspel’s nomination unleashed a firestorm of protest against, and advocacy for, her leading the agency. This was the first opportunity for Haspel—who currently serves as acting director after Mike Pompeo’s departure—to address, on the record, many of the senators’ concerns. Dogging Haspel are her post-September 11 days at the CIA when she oversaw a secret prison (frequently referred to as a black site) in which terrorist suspects were tortured. This “enhanced interrogation,” as the George W. Bush administration called it, was part of a larger “Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation” (RDI) program that most argue was a severe violation of human rights and international law, and was later explicitly outlawed by Congress. During the years of the “war on terror,” the US government began having internal debates about the legality of the RDI program and its interrogation techniques. It was against this backdrop that Haspel—then chief of staff to the CIA’s director of the Counterterrorism Center—drafted an order to destroy videotapes of some interrogations, which were being sought by Congress.

Because of her role in the controversial RDI program—in which mostly Arab and Muslim men were kidnapped and tortured—many senators now question her judgment and moral fitness to lead the spy agency. Haspel spent most of her time arguing that her judgment and moral compass are strong and that she would follow the law, implying that she would not allow the CIA to restart the RDI program. Though she faces some strong criticism, it is still not known how she will fare in becoming the first woman director of the CIA.

3) Defense Appropriations

House, Senate Barrel toward Defense Spending Deals. This week, both the House and Senate took steps toward laying out their defense spending priorities for fiscal year 2019. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) marked up and passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford to explore the White House’s budget request for the Pentagon. Mattis and Dunford spent their time before the Senate trying to quell members’ concerns that the Department of Defense might be wasting substantial amounts of its record-breaking budget. Regardless of the concerns, the Senate’s defense budget is expected to match the House’s at $716 billion.

The committee markup of the NDAA for fiscal year 2019 offers the following provisions that would benefit countries in the Middle East and North Africa:

  • $850 million for local forces fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq
  • $300 million for local militias fighting in Syria
  • $250 million for countries bordering Syria and/or Iraq to bolster their security
  • Expedited processes for approving military weapons sales, particularly missiles and missile defense systems, to US allies; the language specifically urges the White House to equip the Gulf Cooperation Council with interoperable defense systems

During the markup, members offered some amendments that sought to isolate Middle Eastern states from US security assistance, however. Most notably, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), who is a notable critic of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, offered an amendment that would block the United States from providing weapons or support to the Saudi coalition. The amendment was defeated but several members voiced support for Khanna’s efforts.

II. Executive Branch

Trump Administration Tackles Iran Deal. As was mentioned above, President Trump made the much-anticipated announcement this week about the status of the United States in the seven-member JCPOA. Considering it was a central campaign promise, Trump opted to withdraw the United States by reimposing all of the US sanctions that were frozen under the nuclear deal. Despite legitimate concerns about the administration’s lack of contingency plans for diplomacy in case Iran also exits the deal, Trump and his cabinet carried forth with his decision. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin released a document advising companies and other entities of the changes being made and the restrictions on doing business with Iran.

Secretary Mattis, during his Senate hearing, reversed months of support for the deal, saying that the deal was no longer in the United States’ best interests because officials could not confirm if Iran was abiding by the agreement. He went on to lay out the Pentagon’s five concerns regarding Iran: its pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for terrorism, development and potential use of ballistic missiles, use of cyberattacks, and disruption of commerce in the Arabian Gulf. The State Department also held multiple briefings to demonstrate its diplomatic agenda publicly, post-deal. Andrew Peek, who heads up the State Department’s body dealing with Iranian affairs, spoke about the United States’ outreach to European allies in an effort to reimpose sanctions, a position that most of the international community has flatly rejected.

Though many opposed the president’s decision, it will be three to six months before sanctions are operational, so it will take some time before the full array of consequences of this decision become realized.