Congressional Update – Week Ending December 22, 2017

Thank you for joining us for this week’s Congressional Update. With the holidays quickly approaching, this will be the last update for 2017. See you in 2018, and happy new year!

I. Congress

1) Legislation

FISA Reauthorization. This week, the GOP leadership in the House and Senate wrestled with the task of reauthorizing the government’s surveillance capabilities before the December 31 deadline. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008, Section 702 allows the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless surveillance of foreign individuals outside the United States for the purpose of gathering intelligence. As it stands currently, surveillance capabilities must be reauthorized by Congress every five years. The tricky part about reauthorizing the controversial program is striking a balance that both national security hawks and civil liberties champions can live with. The pro-civil liberties groups want a sunset provision (i.e., an expiration date) and greater restrictions on how information on US citizens that is accidentally swept up in the bulk surveillance is used. National security hawks, on the other hand, want the program reauthorized indefinitely and balk at the idea that the Federal Bureau of Investigation must secure a warrant to search information that is collected incidentally on US citizens. There is a long way to go to find consensus, so congressional leadership is entertaining the passage of a short-term reauthorization—possibly up to 30 days long—that would allow more time for deal-making. Another option is to attach a short-term authorization to a must-pass spending bill that Congress is considering.

H.R. 4681. On December 19, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Eliot Engel (D-New York), and three of his colleagues introduced a bill titled the No Assistance for Assad Act. This bill would prevent any US financial aid from being used to reconstruct or stabilize areas of Syria that are under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The restriction on aid would last until 2022, but the president is authorized to waive this restriction if he can certify that the Assad regime has ceased all attacks on civilians, has made efforts to release political prisoners, and is moving forward on reforming the military and security forces, among other things. Some exceptions are carved out for humanitarian concerns or issues that directly benefit local communities. The bill was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

Res. 150. On December 20, the Senate unanimously agreed to adopt a resolution recognizing the threats to freedom of the press around the world and reaffirming the United States’ commitment to a free press. This resolution was spurred, partly, by journalist fatalities in recent years. The language of the resolution cites a troubling report by the Committee to Protect Journalists that lists Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as the most dangerous places for journalists to work. Under this nonbinding resolution, Congress also urges President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to provide leadership on the issues of press freedom and protecting journalists.

H.R. 1159. On December 20, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill under suspended rules (with a vote of 411-0) that allows for the United States to continue cooperation with Israel in peaceful space exploration. The United States and Israel Space Cooperation Act, should it go on to pass the Senate, would allow the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to work with its Israeli counterpart in areas of mutual interest. The bill will move on to the Senate for consideration.

Government Spending. As mentioned under the FISA Reauthorization section, Congress has a must-pass spending bill to usher through before adjourning for the holidays. The tentative deal is to pass a continuing resolution (CR) that pushes the December 22 deadline to January 19. As a CR, the legislation allows for spending levels to remain—avoiding a government shutdown—at levels identical to those of the last fiscal year. In order to sweeten up the legislation and make it easier for members to accept, there will be some additions to the defense budget—known as anomalies—totaling $4 billion. While the deal is far from complete, House and Senate GOP leaders are confident they will get something done before the government runs out of money at midnight on the 22nd.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Newstead Confirmed to State Department’s Top Legal Post. This week, Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) and other senators released holds on President Trump’s nominee to serve as the top legal counsel for the State Department. Jennifer Newstead was confirmed by a vote of 88-11 after apparently satisfying Senator Young’s questions about Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war. The opposition of Young and the other senators to her nomination stemmed from their concerns that the State Department was not seriously assessing if the Saudis were violating international and US laws in their campaign against the Yemeni Houthi rebels. Newstead, in an apparent break with previous State Department statements, relented and told Young that the Saudis may, in fact, be violating both the Geneva Conventions and Section 620I of the US Foreign Assistance Act which bars countries from using US aid to hinder the delivery of humanitarian support. Even if Newstead maintains this opinion in her new role, the US Foreign Assistance Act allows the president to waive the provisions of the law, citing national security concerns, and the United States could still provide weapons and logistical support as it has done for the past few years.

Congress Wants Details on the Administration’s Dealings with Qatar. Late last week, four congressmen penned a letter to Secretary of State Tillerson venting their frustrations about the department’s refusal to declassify the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the United States and Qatar earlier this year. The MOU was signed in July 2017 to address counterterrorism efforts, but it has been classified ever since. The congressmen want Tillerson to declassify the MOU and make it public so that citizens can see what steps Qatar’s government is taking to “deter Islamic terrorism.”

Congress Requests Probe into Assad’s Connection to Fatalities in Iraq. While some representatives were reaching out to Tillerson, two others wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to open an investigation into what role, if any, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had in the deaths of US service members in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) and Steve Russell (R-Oklahoma), who are also veterans, wrote to Sessions, laying out evidence that Assad facilitated the crossing of arms and personnel from Syrian territory to Iraq for the purpose of attacking US troops. If the Department of Justice does decide to open such an investigation, it could provide US citizens a route for taking legal action and seeking damages from the Assad regime.

Royce Applauds the Saudis’ Decision to Allow Humanitarian Aid into Yemen. Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), who chairs the HFAC, released a statement on December 20 applauding the Saudi regime for its reported opening of the Hodeida port in Yemen for humanitarian aid. Though this is a critical move, it is a little disconcerting that top congressional members are praising a move that simply corrects a violation of international and US law. Additionally, Royce made no reference to finding an end to the fighting or urging the Saudis to respect international laws of armed conflict, but he did take time to applaud the Trump Administration for using Yemen as another arena for countering Iran.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Unveils New National Security Strategy. On December 18, President Trump held a press conference to unveil his administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS is a mandated report that is supposed to be submitted annually, outlining the strategy of the president and his team for protecting the United States. Trump’s NSS, like many of those submitted by his predecessors, was bare on specifics. Further, this NSS was surprising for its inward-looking approach to national security and the administration’s reluctance to reaffirm US commitment to long-held US values like human rights and democracy. The 68-page document strikes a starkly different tone from previous versions and focuses primarily on boosting the US economy and combating the threats facing the country by building up the military and broadening the amount of information shared with allies.

Greenblatt Visits Israel. President Trump’s lead negotiator on the Israel-Palestine peace process, Jason Greenblatt, visited Israel for the first time since Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. From the onset of the trip, however, it was unlikely that Greenblatt would make much progress with the visit, as officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to meet with him. Vice President Mike Pence will encounter similar problems when he visits the area early next month.

2) Cabinet

Trump and Haley Threaten UN Members on Jerusalem Vote. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and President Trump had some choice words for fellow UN members ahead of the General Assembly’s December 21 vote to condemn the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Haley sent around a letter warning members that the United States would be keeping an eye on who voted to confirm the nonbinding resolution, and Trump later followed up those remarks with a threat to withhold funding from states that sided against the United States. Prior to the vote, Haley went even further, stating that the United States would reconsider its funding to the United Nations, as a whole, should the United States be “singled out.” The threats proved fruitless, though, as 128 states voted to affirm the resolution, with 35 abstaining and only nine (including the United State) voting against the measure. Legally, it is tough to see how far the administration can go to punish those involved because Congress allocates funds and the executive branch generally has to spend the money as Congress lays it out.

Haley Continues Campaign Against Yemen’s Houthis, Iran. In addition to her combative approach toward the United Nations regarding the Jerusalem decision, Haley continued her full-throated attack against Iran before the world this week. Last week she went before the body and presented what she considered “concrete evidence” that Iran was running afoul of international law by delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Haley followed up her performance, which was reminiscent of Colin Powell’s infamous 2003 speech that provided a controversial rationale for the US war in Iraq, by again levying harsh words against Iran after another missile was fired by the Houthis toward Riyadh. Speaking before the UN Security Council, Haley suggested that punitive sanctions should be imposed to address Iran’s behavior in the region.