Freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) and forty-six of his Republican colleagues wrote a letter to the Iranian leadership warning that any deal implemented by executive order can be revoked by executive order. That is, whoever is elected in 2016, or even President Obama if he saw fit, can undo the deal at any time. The goal is to prevent Iran from gaming ongoing negotiations with the P5+1, but the letter indirectly strengthens President Obama’s hand. It is a basic good cop/bad cop, with the Republicans playing bad cop so President Obama can play good cop and try to salvage a viable deal.
The accusation that signing this letter is traitorous is bizarre. As a purely legal matter, treason accusations are meritless. Conceptually they fair no better. Not only are the Senators trying to prevent the United States’ most vicious global antagonist from gaining nuclear weapons, they are indirectly helping a president who is doing everything he can to undercut their constitutional powers. Oh, and Tom Cotton is an Army veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan; hardly an obvious target for treason accusations. Yet the #47traitors hashtag was trending on twitter on Tuesday and a petition calling for the letter’s signatories to be indicted has nearly reached its goal (this brings to mind French Revolution tactics of slaughtering competitors whenever possible, no matter how slim the pretense).
In the bigger picture, what exactly did President Obama expect congressional Republicans to do? In January, 2014, frustrated with constitutional checks and balances that gave the Republican majority in the House a say in governance, President Obama announced that he would rule by fiat, circumventing Congress by relying on executive orders and legislation masquerading as regulation. Then, of course, President Obama’s fellow democrats in the Senate were trounced in November, giving Republicans the Senate, too, and leaving President Obama all the more dependent on cooperation across the aisle, at least under the Constitution. After all, elections have consequences.
But rather then moderate as the Constitution dictates in times of divided governance, the President opted to just ignore separation of powers. The breaking point probably came with an executive order that granted de facto amnesty to millions of people in the country illegally, notwithstanding federal law prohibiting same.
Now, President Obama promises that any deal he strikes with Iran will not be sent to the Senate for ratification (as a treaty requiring a 2/3 vote under Article II) or even for a non-binding up-or-down vote. In his view, he can strike any deal with Iran and suspend or rescind sanctions imposed by legislation duly passed by Congress and signed into law, and Congress has no say whatever. In practice, President Obama’s overreaching gives Republicans in Congress every justification (and arguably the obligation) to do everything in their power to rein him in.
No, Senator Cotton and company are not traitors. They are living up to their oaths to protect the country and the Constitution. President Obama is on pace to sign a disastrous pact that assures Iran a path to nuclear weapons. To implement the deal, President Obama would ignore federal law, the majority of Congress, and public opinion. Bravo to the Senators for exerting themselves to prevent such a debacle.