Congress: Are they paying attention?

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The United States Congress on Wednesday overwhelmingly voted to overturn President Obama’s veto on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allows relatives of the victims of the September 11th attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. federal court. This legislation also means that “American courts could seize Saudi assets to pay for any judgment obtained by the Sept. 11 families, while Saudi officials have warned they might need to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in holdings in the United States to avoid such an outcome.”

The House of Representatives voted 348-77 against the veto, hours after the Senate rejected it 97-1. This is the first veto override of President Obama’s administration.

In the days leading up to the override President Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all wrote letters to Congress warning of the dangers of overriding the veto. John O. Brennan, the Director of the CIA, released a statement saying, “Any legislation that affects sovereign immunity should take into account the associated risks to our national security”. Risks such as angering important allies, reciprocal foreign legislation aimed at the United States and negative economic consequences.

However, as Senator Charles Shumer (D-NY) argued, “Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts”. But now Congress is suffering from what the White House has deemed “rapid onset buyer’s remorse”.

House and Senate leaders have conceded problems with the bill just hours after the override. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) suggested “that the House might take up a bill to fix problems with the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act…after it comes back from its election recess. He acknowledged Obama’s concerns that the bill could subject U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts”. Additionally, Ryan stated that he’d “like to think that there’s a way we could fix so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims, which is what JASTA did do”. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said “Nobody really had focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships. I think it was just a ball dropped”.

It’s not their fault, however. McConnell went on to say that the White House had not made their concerns known soon enough. “I hate to blame everything on him. And I don’t. But it would have been helpful had we had a discussion about this much earlier than last week.”

In response to this criticism, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said,

“Well, it’s hard to know where to start.

“I think what we’ve seen in the United States Congress is a pretty classic case of rapid onset buyer’s remorse. It’s hard to take at face value the suggestion that somehow they were unaware of the consequences of their vote. But even if they were, what’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress, ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security and the safety and security of our diplomats and our service members.”

However, it’s difficult to argue ignorance when at least 28 senators signed a letter asking to work to mitigate any potential unintended national security and foreign policy consequences. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “I do want to say I don’t think the Senate nor House has functioned in an appropriate manner as it relates to a very important piece of legislation. I have tremendous concerns about the sovereign immunity procedures that would be set in place by the countries as a result of this vote”. Corker voted in favor of the bill. And as noted above, Schumer, one of the bill’s sponsors, understood the potential diplomatic backlash associated with the legislation. Furthermore, the risk of similar loss of U.S. sovereign immunity is the exact reason why the United States refuses to be party to the International Criminal Court.

The United States Congress has just eroded U.S. sovereignty, potentially hurt the U.S. economy, angered an important U.S. ally in the Middle East and made the United States less secure, and their argument is they were too ignorant to understand these consequences.

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