Congressional Update – Week Ending June 8, 2018

I. Congress

The House of Representatives and the Senate both returned to Washington this week to tackle legislative business and move toward securing the federal budget for fiscal year (FY) 2019. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced this week that he is canceling all but one week of the typically month-long August recess. Citing “historic obstruction,” McConnell intends to keep the Senate in session in August to further pursue passing a budget as well as confirming President Donald Trump’s personnel nominations. This will be a big blow to vulnerable Senate Democrats from Republican-leaning states who had hoped to use the entire month of August to campaign before November’s midterm elections.

1) Legislation

H.J. Res 135. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York) introduced a resolution this week condemning Hamas for the violence that has unfolded in Gaza since last March and affirming support for Israel’s right to “defend” itself. Zeldin and his eight cosponsors argue in this resolution that Hamas organized the massive protests that Palestinians undertook against Israel and that the designated terrorist group is solely to blame for the more than 120 deaths and thousands of injuries. The resolution makes no mention of the Israel Defense Forces’ handling of the protests, which many observers say was disproportionate and unjustifiably lethal.

Fiscal Year 2019 NDAA. The Senate briefly postponed its effort to pass its version of the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). However, some progress was made, including an earlier provision on Yemen authored by Sens. Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) previously detailed here and here. The Young-Shaheen provision would mandate reporting requirements on what the Saudi-led coalition is doing to reach a political settlement to the Yemen war, as well as steps the group is taking to limit civilian casualties. The provision is not as tough on the Saudis as some senators would like, but because it is part of the must-pass NDAA, it is all but guaranteed to pass when the full Senate votes on it next week.

2) Hearings

“Protecting America from a Bad Deal: Ending US Participation in the Nuclear Agreement with Iran.” On June 6, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee for National Security held a hearing on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the nuclear deal from which President Trump recently withdrew the United States. The goals of this hearing were billed as assessing the reasons for Trump’s decision to end US participation in the deal as well as policy options that can be implemented to counter the threats to US national security emanating from Tehran. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), who is a fierce supporter of Donald Trump, used his chairmanship of the subcommittee to call witnesses with an almost uniform disdain for the JCPOA; indeed, only one witness testified that the president’s decision to withdraw from the deal was ill-conceived. Opponents of the JCPOA included Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute, and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute; the lone proponent of maintaining the deal was Jim Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The four opponents gave a number of reasons why the nuclear agreement was a “bad deal,” but few of them addressed what to do to counter Iranian aggression—and those who did gave vague answers. Goldberg’s recommendations were that the United States should pursue two kinds of warfare, economic and political, and maintain strong military deterrence. Rubin recommended that the United States support Iranian dissidents and invest in anti-censorship technology, while Albright urged lawmakers to take Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency to compel it to open its military sites for inspection.

Several lawmakers sided more with Walsh, however, in recognizing the flaws of the JCPOA but asking for specific answers to the question: What happens now that the United States is no longer upholding its part of the deal? Walsh was unable to give recommendations for combatting malign Iranian activity because, in his view, Tehran is going to become more aggressive as a result of feeling increasingly threatened by Washington, and the United States will be less capable of confronting the Islamic Republic. Ultimately, Walsh argued that withdrawing from the agreement risks military conflict and/or nuclear proliferation in the Middle East while simultaneously hurting US standing in the international community.

Chairman DeSantis indicated his committee may investigate whether the former Obama Administration gave Iran access to the US financial system—which the administration told Congress it would not do—in the wake of a Senate report that details what the GOP says is evidence of Obama officials misleading Congress.

War Powers and the Effects of Unauthorized Military Engagements on Federal Spending. On June 6, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management held a hearing on the constitutional authority to authorize the use of military force (AUMF) and assess what effects unauthorized military fighting has had in the more than 20 countries where US forces are currently deployed. Though the hearing was mostly relevant to US domestic and constitutional law, the witnesses spoke quite pointedly about senators’ efforts to pass a new AUMF, S.J. Res. 59, which would legalize all military operations currently taking place, most of which are in Arab states.

The witnesses for this hearing—Andrew Napolitano, Jonathan Turley, and Christopher Anders—are experienced constitutional law scholars and all came out forcefully against S.J. Res. 59, which is considered the only AUMF that could become law. This authorization has no expiration date, legalizes the president’s ability to carry out military operations on eight entities in eight countries, and allows the president to add to that list with little impunity. Critics of the legislation say it will only continue the “war on terror” indefinitely, and that it would give lawmakers little ability to prevent the president from opening fronts in new countries or constricting operations that have gone on for years, such as in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen. All three witnesses urged the senators to oppose S.J. Res. 59.

3) Personnel

Congress’s First Muslim to Leave Washington. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), the first Muslim elected to serve in Congress, announced this week that he would not seek reelection for his congressional seat this November. Instead, he is opting to return to Minnesota to run for election as the state’s attorney general. Ellison has been an ambassador of sorts for Muslim Americans in Washington and he has also been one of the more sympathetic members of Congress toward Palestinians. His vacancy—the reliably Democratic 5th district of Minnesota—is already drawing national attention because the nation’s first Somali-American lawmaker has opted to seek Ellison’s position in Washington. State Rep. Ilhan Omar, should she win in November, would be the first Somali-American to serve in Congress.

Senator Booker Visits Lebanon. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and a prospective 2020 presidential candidate, visited the Middle East and South Asia earlier in the week. On his three-country tour, Booker visited Lebanon where he met with US Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, officials of the Lebanese government, and representatives from the United Nations. In addition, he toured refugee camps in the eastern part of the country and took time to visit some of the ongoing projects in Lebanon by the US Agency for International Development. He lauded Lebanon’s help to those fleeing violence in neighboring Syria. Booker considers it crucial that Congress ensures the United States is helping provide for refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Despite Celebrating the Embassy Move, Trump Signs Waiver Postponing that Very Move. President Donald Trump may have raised some eyebrows this week when he issued a memo to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and invoked his right to waive the requirement to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As peculiar as it seems—because the administration held a ceremony in May honoring that very move—it is apparently a technicality to ensure that the State Department does not have its budget cut by Congress. Per the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, the embassy must be moved to Jerusalem and failure to do so would require Congress to strip funding from the State Department. The national security waiver—to postpone the move for six months, which presidents have signed since 1995—was included in the legislation to address then-President Bill Clinton’s concern about the law damaging his pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Despite Trump’s embassy decision, the opening of the building in Jerusalem does not technically satisfy the Jerusalem Embassy Act to the letter since the ambassador and a number of embassy staff do not live or work in Jerusalem. Therefore, President Trump issued the national security waiver to ensure that the State Department is not punished as a result. If appropriate housing and security cannot be secured in six months, Trump will likely have to issue another waiver in December of this year.

2) Treasury Department

Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financing Intelligence Talks Iran. On June 5, the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence gave a brief presentation about all the ways Iran is deceiving the international community and exploiting the international financial system for nefarious purposes. Under Secretary Sigal P. Mandelker’s prime argument was that Iran uses deceptive and surreptitious means to finance its long list of nefarious activities. Much of her presentation addressed the technical side of her Treasury work and how it has determined Iran is abusing the international financial system for illicit gain. She noted that Iran seeks financing so it can continue to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight to regain control of Syria. Additionally, Mandelker said that Iran provides some $700 million every year to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as unspecified amounts of money to Hamas and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Moving forward, Mandelker noted that the Treasury Department is working diligently to “snap back” the nuclear-related sanctions that the United States suspended after agreeing to the JCPOA. Further, officials at Treasury are seeking new ways to sanction Iran for its nefarious activities in hopes of securing the “unprecedented financial pressure” for which Secretary Pompeo has called. Mandelker said that Treasury officials and their counterparts in the State Department are reaching out to European allies in a “carrot-and-stick” approach to enforce US sanctions as well as place additional pressure on Iran for its “deceptive, exploitive, and destructive policies.” This latter tactic was on display this week as Treasury and State officials traveled Europe urging officials to cease doing business with Iranian entities, prompting the European officials from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Union to pen a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Secretary Pompeo urging the administration to extend exemptions from sanctions for European companies operating in Iran.