Senate Republicans want to get involved in President Barack Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran, as they demonstrated when the vast majority of them signed Tom Cotton's forceful letter. Senate Democrats want to get involved, too — including Ben Cardin, Robert Menendez, and Chuck Schumer, the likely successor to Harry Reid as Senate Democratic leader.
Congress has some legitimate prerogatives here. And the framework of the nuclear deal is risky, even by the United States' reading. These senators are not wrong to demand oversight.
At the same time, a large contingent of these senators don't really want a deal that could be realistically achieved by diplomatic means in the foreseeable future. Some want to condition meaningful sanctions relief on Iran becoming a "normal" country. But the reason we're pushing to restrict and inspect Iran's nuclear program in the first place is precisely because Iran is not a normal country.
But here's the particularly striking thing: The GOP-controlled Senate demands some say in the Iran nuclear deal, but is content to allow Obama to wage war against ISIS in Iraq without a congressional vote, the second such unauthorized war of his presidency. And here, Congress' prerogatives are unmistakable: The Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to declare war.
Forty-seven Republican senators signed a letter asserting that Congress must have a role in the Iranian negotiations. They've merely debated authorizing the ISIS war — after the bombing was well underway.
Congress has largely abdicated its clearest role in foreign policy, its voice on matters of war and peace. Half the Democrats in the Senate deferred to George W. Bush on Iraq. But at least he sought congressional approval for his wars. The last two Democratic presidents have gone to war without such approval, though at least congressional Republicans tried to restrain Bill Clinton. They have been derelict in this duty with Obama in the White House.
Republicans were willing to go all the way to the Supreme Court to defend the view that the president can't decide when the Senate is in recess. Some Republicans sued Clinton over Kosovo. And now Republicans are clamoring to have final say over any deal with Iran. But there are few Republicans who seem to think it's bad that Obama is bombing ISIS without congressional approval, except insofar as it involves working with Iran. (See newly declared presidential candidate Marco Rubio on this point.)
In fact, many lawmakers now argue that foreign policy is exclusively in the president's domain — except when it isn't.
A lot of these questions do really turn on the merits. If the Iran deal detracts from American national security, Republicans are right to try to subvert it. If the deal enhances national security, it's a bad thing to undermine it. And it's at least understandable that Republicans will be less angry about a president bombing jihadists who have killed Americans in gruesome fashion, even if there was no congressional vote.
But the process matters too — especially if you claim to be the party of constitutionally limited government. If presidents usurp the power to declare war, it is inevitable that not all of the wars of their choosing will be wise or just. And conservative critiques of the imperial presidency lose some of their force when coupled with arguments that the president is an emperor when it comes to going to war.
At minimum, some of the reasonable arguments made against executive power grabs begin to look like partisan posturing — which, in turn, makes it easier for presidents to successfully grab power. Why? Because some voters and opinion leaders will take the arguments against these executive actions less seriously.
That includes arguments against the Iran deal. While the final details will ultimately be the result of work done by the administration and our allies, the diplomatic process itself is a product of bipartisan policies pursued by two administrations.
Republicans would be more convincing in their arguments against Obama's Iran framework if they demanded he come to Congress before using military force, not just when he is clearly trying to avoid the use of force.