Op-Ed: How Congress flubbed the Iran debate
If I were still a member of Congress, I would vote against the Obama administration’s agreement to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for a temporary, hoped-for slowdown in the development of Tehran’s nuclear capability. My primary concern is that we lack sufficient ability to monitor Iranian compliance. But I accept the outcome; sometimes, your side loses. What I cannot accept with nearly as much equanimity is the disturbing way in which many lawmakers handled one of the most important issues any of them will ever face.
This was a biggie, much more consequential than anything the presidential candidates are talking about and with greater potential ramifications than anything else on the legislative agenda. If any issue required full intellectual engagement with no loyalties other than to rigorous research and serious reflection, this was it. Instead, what we got — from both sides — was party-line fealty.
When President Obama first announced the deal, I pointed out its shortcomings. But I also acknowledged that I could be wrong; there are smart, sophisticated people who believe the nuclear agreement is a good one, and that’s meaningful.
So how is it that, given the diversity within Republican congressional ranks — in age, experience, ethnicity, education, geography, etc. — there were not even a few, not even a handful, who thought the agreement worth a try, if only on the grounds that there seemed no good alternative?
How is it that no one was willing to break ranks? How, on such an issue, with such stakes, could the entire congressional wing of the Republican Party stand united in opposition?
Democratic lawmakers have behaved just as poorly. They are responsible for ensuring that a presidential veto could not be overridden, thus guaranteeing the survival of the agreement against the wishes of the majority of both houses of Congress.
True, there were a few defections — most notably Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Robert Menendez — but the party’s leaders in both the House and Senate made clear that loyalty to the president was paramount.
As former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put it in an article in the New York Times, few Democrats would “defy the president” to oppose the deal. That’s disappointing, to say the least. Members of Congress take an oath to defend the Constitution, not to defend the president. And it is a significant part of their constitutional responsibilities to “defy” the executive when the national interest so requires.
Perhaps the president is correct that failure to accept the agreement could lead to war in the Middle East; or maybe his opponents, who think the agreement itself could trigger that war, have it right. The agreement may, in the long run, lead to the emergence of an Iran reintegrated into the community of nations, an economic force rather than a nuclear one. Or it may prove to be one of the greatest and most dangerous foreign policy mistakes this country has made — and we’ve made many. Time will tell.
But we don’t need more time to understand the real problem here at home: We can no longer trust the people we elect to use their independent judgment to act on our behalf. In our political system, party loyalty trumps all other considerations; lawmakers decide even the most important questions on the basis of team cohesion.
It is neither the president nor Congress, neither the House nor the Senate, neither Republicans nor Democrats, who are solely to blame; it seems like everyone has forgotten how democratic self-government is supposed to work.
Mickey Edwards is a former member of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and a former lecturer at Harvard and Princeton universities. He is currently a vice president of the Aspen Institute.
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