On Monday 47 Republican Senators sent a letter to the government of Iran. The letter explains that, in the American constitutional system, Congress must consent to all binding foreign agreements. They wrote that any foreign agreement made without Congressional consent has no legal force and may be overturned by Congressional legislation or future presidents. The 47 Republicans who signed the letter correctly grasp the separation of powers between the executive and Congress; however, they have taken a dangerous step for United States foreign policy.
The president is attempting to reach a multinational deal with Iran in which he would remove the sanctions on Iran in return for a temporary freeze on its nuclear program. Many members of Congress oppose this kind of deal and believe that removing sanctions will not apply the pressure needed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. This motivated Senate Republicans to send a letter to Iran, hoping it would prevent Iran from agreeing to the deal they oppose.
Regardless of the wisdom or merits of President Barack Obama’s proposed deal, this was a shocking and inappropriate move by Senate Republicans that is an insult to the history of our republic. Under the Articles of Confederation, foreign powers were reluctant to negotiate with us because Congress could not honor its foreign commitments. Each state had a law unto itself regarding foreign affairs and Congress was powerless both to stop them from negotiating with foreign nations and to force them to adhere to foreign treaties. This was one of the many issues resolved at the Constitutional Convention. The Framers prohibited the states from entering into “any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power” (Article I, Sec. 10, Cl. 3). They decided to place the power of foreign negotiation solely in the executive, but required any binding agreements to be made with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Constitution says that the president “shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers” (Article II, Sec.3, Cl. 4) and that “he shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur” (Article II, Sec. 2, Cl. 2).
The Framers made reasoned determinations to separate power. It is to split among Congress, the President and the Supreme Court at the federal level; furthermore, it is to be divided between the states and the federal government. Despite these divisions and separations between institutions in our domestic affairs, they concluded that when we face foreign powers, we stand as one. The president is the face of our nation abroad and he is given the power to negotiate with foreign ministers, not the Senate. On Monday, 47 Republican Senators (not even a majority of the Senate) flouted this longstanding tradition enshrined in the Constitution and sent a letter to a foreign state. They went around chief diplomats of the United States, and projected division and irresolution abroad. On Monday, 47 Senators set a dangerous precedent and essentially told the world that it cannot trust any agreement made with the President of the United States without also earning the agreement of the United States Senate, severely weakening our diplomatic position.
The Republican Senators are correct that binding agreements with foreign nations require the Senate’s approval, but it is not their place to inform foreign nations of that fact. If Senators were concerned with the direction the president was taking in foreign negotiations, they should have sent a letter to him explaining those concerns. If he unwisely chose to ignore these concerns, he would appear foolish if Congress refused to consent to any agreement he made. A number of Democrats were opposed to the president’s deal and the Republicans would likely have been able to achieve a bipartisan two-thirds majority in both Houses of Congress, overruling any agreement and any presidential veto. Instead of working to ensure Democratic support to check the president in a bipartisan way, they have likely alienated many likely Democratic allies on future legislation against the Iran deal. The 47 Republican Senators have risked the opportunity to make an incredibly powerful statement against the president and check the current president’s unbridled discretion and lack of respect for Congress. Instead they have undermined the presidency’s reputation abroad, in violation of the spirit of the Constitution and longstanding tradition, and have projected a picture of American disunity to foreign nations.