Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Blog

From the brutal conflict in Syria, to Boko Haram in Nigeria, and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine the White House has its hands full in implementing a U.S. foreign policy agenda that buttresses American interests and national security. Prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner (OH-8), and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Edward Royce (CA-39), have consistently criticized theadministration’s actions on multiple foreign policy fronts. Speaker Boehner’s recent invitation to Israeli Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu to address the U.S. Congress and the letter sent by 47 Republicans Senators to Iranian leaders regardingongoing negotiations over its nuclear program are the latest examples reflecting the GOP’s attempt to gain control of an issue area that has been constitutionally assigned to the President: U.S. foreign policy. 

On March 3rd, PM Netanyahu spoke before the U.S. Congress at the request of Speaker Boehner, without consulting the White House. PM Netanyahu's speech represented a political calculation from both public officials. For PM Netanyahu, the hallowed floor of Congress permitted him to publicly champion himself as the ultimate defender of Israel - a week before he squares off with opponents in a contentious election. Speaker Boehner used PM Netanyahu’s speech as a vehicle to implement his vision of how the U.S. should handle ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.  In reaction to being excluded from the decision making process of this event, Denis McDonough, the White House Chief of Staff, announced that President Obama would not meet with PM Netanyahu because meeting a foreign head of state so close to an election is a breach of protocol. As multiple political pundits have pointed out, Speaker Boehner’s and PM Netanyahu’s actions may threaten the U.S. Congress’ historically bipartisan support of Israel.

For Speaker Boehner, there has been a quick response on and off of Capitol Hill in regards to his latest actions. Newt Gingrich, a former Republican presidential hopeful in 2012 and Speaker of the House from 1995-1999, commented that Speaker Boehner’s actions ignored protocol. Tellingly, an unnamed member of Congress communicated to a media source that Speaker Boehner’s and PM Netanyahu’s actions may result in irreversible harm to the U.S.-Israel relationship. The most powerful response to PM Netanyahu’s speech occurred on the day that it took place.

58 Democratic members of Congress decided to not attend his speech, a clear rebuke to PM Netanyahu and Speaker Boehner. Furthermore, their decision reflected the sentiment of portions of the American political establishment who felt that the speech was an affront to President Obama and the Executive Office. Following the speech, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA-12), who was almost brought to tears, stated that the speech insulted the intelligence of the U.S.; Democrat John Yarmuth (KY-3) believed that the speech was “straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” meanwhile Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (IL-9) suggested that PM Netanyahu used the speech to push the U.S. and Iran closer to war.

Although a large portion of Congress did attend the speech, the number of members who did not attend sent a powerful message to PM Netanyahu, and any other foreign leader watching. Those 56 Democrats demonstrated that the U.S. congress cannot be used as a stage of political theater from which foreign leaders publicly undermine the policies of the Executive Office.

As if to reassert the GOP’s new modus operandi to direct U.S. foreign policy, 47 Republican Senators, led by freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), sent a letter to Iranian leaders explaining to them that any deal struck with the Obama administration could be undone by a future President, if the Senate refused to provide its approval. Comparable to Speaker Boehner’s invitation to PM Netanyahu, the decision of these Senators to interject themselves in ongoing international negotiations is a flagrant act of disrespect not only aimed at President Obama, but at the integrity of the Constitution that they took an oath to uphold. Since the letter was released, both Republicans and Democrats have spoken against it. Senator McCain (R-AZ), one of the signatories of the letter, admitted in an interview with Fox News that sending the letter “maybe wasn’t the best way” to voice Republican frustration with how the Obama administration is handling the ongoing negotiations.

Normally, if members of the Senate or House do not agree with the President’s policies, then they may publicly say so or they may introduce congressional resolutions that express their angst.
These actions do not undermine the President’s ability to credibly act as Commander in Chief in the arena of international relations. However, this letter goes above and beyond in setting a dangerous precedent through which members of Congress can weaken the Executive Branch’s ability to conduct and implement U.S. foreign policy.

PM Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress was ultimately driven by Speaker Boehner’s desire to orchestrate U.S. foreign policy as it pertains to nuclear negotiations with Iran. The 47 Republican Senators who agreed to support the letter sent to Iranian leaders held identical motivations as Speaker Boehner. However, Speaker Boehner and his 47 Republican colleagues need to accept that they are not the commander-in-chief; therefore, it is not their duty to construct U.S. foreign policy. With an invigorated Republican held Congress, this may not be the only foreign policy issue that they attempt to force the President’s hand on. As we uncovered in our 2015 Congressional Report, Republicans are using their influential positions within Congressional committees to step in to the most significant U.S. foreign policy issues.