Traitors? Hardly. Antagonizing a co-equal branch of government has consequences

Traitors! Wreckers! Saboteurs! The Senate Republicans, consumed as they are with a personal and irrational hatred for the president, have elected to thwart the administration’s glorious efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran and safeguard your family’s interests. The Republicans have put your children’s lives at risk with their reckless vandalism in an unprecedented betrayal of both king and country.


And so on.

These and other hyperbolic and overwrought pronouncements from the left followed the decision by 47 Republicans in the upper chamber of Congress to remind those negotiating a nuclear deal that their consent to any agreement is ultimately necessary if it is to survive beyond January 20, 2017.

That shouldn’t have to be necessary. The GOP’s critics have a point when they note that this behavior is unseemly and distasteful. It has the effect of reducing the stature of the presidency amid negotiations with another sovereign nation. This is an interference with the president’s conduct of foreign affairs to a degree that does shock and even legitimately disturbs.

There are some, however, who contend that this level of defiance to a sitting president is unprecedented, but it is not. There are others who insist that decorum alone demands that the opposition party in full control of the co-equal legislative chamber should defer to the White House in negotiations with Iran, but they shouldn’t. Finally, there are others who would honestly contend that this display of frustration on the part of Senate Republicans was entirely unprovoked. They are wrong.

In 2007, many on the right were consumed by the same passionate fury with which Democrats presently contend. Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) traveled to Syria in a display of dissent against the Bush administration’s approach to foreign affairs. In Damascus, Pelosi represented the American political opposition when she sat down with the murderous thug Bashar al-Assad, a Ba’athist dictator who would begin deploying chemical weapons against his country’s civilian population just five years later.


Pelosi maintained that she and President Bush shared the same goals, and she served merely as a de facto emissary for the administration. The White House disagreed. “There is nothing funny about the impact her trip to Syria has had,” said then National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “On the contrary, these visits have convinced the Assad regime that its actions in support of terrorists have no consequences.”

Similarly, the case could be made that Republicans were merely advising the Iranian government that it is in their best interests to consent to a deal that could be ratified by a Republican Senate. That the American administration opposes submitting any nuclear accord reached by the P5+1 to the Senate for ratification is immaterial.

In 1991, it was revealed that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) proposed quite a coup that might have dangerously undermined American foreign policy in the process. In 1983, then KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov composed a memorandum to General Secretary Yuri Andropov, himself a former KGB chief who brutally crushed the anti-Soviet rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively. The memo revealed that Kennedy had approached the Soviet spy service with an offer. “Kennedy would lend Andropov a hand in dealing with President Reagan,” Peter Robinson, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, wrote in 2009. “In return, the Soviet leader would lend the Democratic Party a hand in challenging Reagan in the 1984 presidential election.”


“Like other rational people” Chebrikov explained to Tovarish Andropov, “[Kennedy] is very troubled by the current state of Soviet-American relations.” For the Soviets’ assistance in 1984, Kennedy offered to help Andropov secure a variety of television interviews in the United States. Though President Reagan served as executor of American foreign policy and the guarantor of American interests at this time, and 1983 was a dangerous year for Soviet-American relations, Kennedy sought to undermine him for personal gain and the advancement of his party’s electoral prospects.

A simple letter that reminds the Mullahs in command of the levers of power inside the Islamic Republic that the U.S. Senate plays a role in sanctioning American foreign policy seems tame by comparison.

What Democrats appear to regard as an affront from the 47 GOP senators who lent their name to this letter should perhaps consider what led to this action in the first place. Merely dismissing this behavior as an outgrowth of blinding personal animus toward Obama might be comforting, but it is not explanatory.

The White House has already pledged that it will not allow the Senate to play their constitutional role in ratifying this agreement. The White House has selectively implemented laws or virtually abrogated them altogether in the case of Obama’s various executive actions relating to the immigration code. The president has failed to faithfully execute even the laws he supports. The spectacle created by the disastrous implementation of the poorly crafted Affordable Care Act has forced Republicans in the House to sue the president over the health care reform law’s selective enforcement.


When Congress failed to abide by the president’s whims and pass new legislation relating to climate change, Obama ordered his Environmental Protection Agency to simply impose new limits on emissions from power plants. The Republican Senate majority leader’s response to this power-grab was to advise the states to ignore those regulations. Predictably, this admonishment prompted the administration to posture as though there was a coup afoot.

When Obama is not undermining the co-equal authority enjoyed by the legislative branch of the federal government, he is insulting those invested by the American public with the authority to manage that institution.

“It’s good to get away from Congress,” the president joked when asked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what he most looked forward to on his 2013 trip to the Jewish State. “So much for the charm offensive,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) sighed.

“Remember late last year when a fiscal cliff deal was in sight, and President Obama held a press conference with multiple jabs at Congress?” CBS News political analyst John Dickerson recalled in that year. “‘So … I’m confused,” said a spokesperson for Eric Cantor, ‘Does POTUS want a deal or not? Because all those jabs at Congress certainly sounded like a smack in the face to me.’”

“That news conference created ill-will that didn’t kill the deal, but it has made working on another one much harder,” Dickerson observed.

The contentious relationship between the Republican-led Congress and the Obama White House is a two-way street, and it is a relationship that has been fraying for years. But the president undermines Congressional authority at his peril, and the consequences for that behavior are only now becoming clear. In their wisdom, the Founders empowered the representatives of the majority in both chambers of Congress with the authority to represent the public second only to the president and the vice president. The president and his supporters feign shock when America’s representatives in Congress deploy some of that authority, but it is only theater.


Obama and his allies sowed the wind. To the extent that a simple letter from 47 Senate Republicans is representative of the whirlwind, it is the administration’s lot to reap it.

An earlier version of this post identified Pelosi as the Democratic House Majority Leader in 2007

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John Sexton 7:00 PM on December 09, 2023