Looks like Obama will pretty much ignore Congress on easing Cuba restrictions

By the pen and the phone update.

Now that the excitement of seeing John Kerry watch a flag being raised over the American embassy in Cuba has faded into the background, what comes next? There’s a lot of red tape tying up the day to day details of the relationship between the US and Castro’s communist paradise with plenty of opposition remaining in Congress over normalization. So what’s a president to do? Following in the pattern which has become all too familiar, it looks like Barack Obama will just go ahead and do it anyway. (ABC News)

The Obama administration plans to unilaterally ease the travel restrictions to Cuba, sources told ABC News.

The new measures would bypass limits on travel imposed by Congress by changing regulations at the executive level.

Talks are already underway between the Federal Aviation Administration and Cuban aviation authorities to resume regularly scheduled non-charter or commercial flights between the two countries.

And ABC News has learned that the Treasury Department is now considering new regulations that would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba as individuals and not in tour groups or with other third-party arrangers.

But there are other restrictions to deal with if you want to travel to Cuba. For one thing, you’re not allowed to spend any American money there except under very specific circumstances and credit card companies can’t process transactions which take place there. How will they get around that?

The president also plans on unilaterally giving banks cover to allow use of credit cards, which already is supposed to be happening but is not because banks have been cautious.

While American Express and MasterCard announced they would allow their cards to be used on the island, no Cuban bank has authorization, meaning those traveling from America must still pay in cash.

A bill was introduced in Congress earlier this year to lift the travel embargo but has yet to move through committee.

What’s going on here? These aren’t executive orders put in place by a previous president which can now simply be signed away. Most of these restrictions were passed by Congress. The State Department lists many of these restrictions on their travel web site and they are formidable. The Treasury Department reminds people that spending American money in Cuba as a tourist can result in up to a $65,000 fine.

This is all part of the embargo which has been in place for longer than many people reading this have been alive. When talks of these changes first came up last year, CNN looked into the matter and seemed to feel that the President was severely limited in what he could or could not do.

So why doesn’t Obama just end the embargo altogether?

He can’t. Only Congress can end a trade embargo, which is enshrined into law. But according to White House officials, the President can ease certain restrictions under his executive authority.

This is the third time Obama has acted to ease the embargo. But policy changes in 2009 and 2011, which eased travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans and later for academics and religious groups, didn’t come close to the scope of Wednesday’s landmark agreement.

Clearly something has changed since last winter. Now the media is practically strutting about and heaping praise on Obama for his “bold actions” to help the Cuban people by exposing them to American ideas and principles through tourism. As I’ve maintained from the beginning, I’m not totally opposed to the idea. I’m not terribly optimistic that it will actually change anything, but it’s not like the old method was working all that well either. But at the same time, if we’re going to make changes it needs to be done under the regular rules of order. This looks like yet another significant overreach of executive power and one which Congress should be obligated to step in on before this becomes the new normal.

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