In the Halls of Congress

This year’s NORPAC mission to Washington was the largest ever, numbering some 1500 souls who descended on the nation’s capital to lobby for Israel, and at this stage, for the United States as well. NORPAC is the principal pro-Israel Political Action Committee (as opposed to AIPAC, which is a political affairs committee that does not offer financial support to politicians); NORPAC does, and so congressmen freely open their offices to Jewish visitors from the tri-state area. Well over 90% of Congress were personally visited by members of our group.

Actually, they open their offices to everyone. Capitol Hill teems with visitors, lobbyists, and tour groups with varying needs and young staffers with a desire to make an impact, make a difference, make connections or at least hobnob with the mighty and influential. Certainly, most lobbyists are seeking some pecuniary advantage – a bill that advances their interests, an exemption from some legislation that would hinder their causes or something that benefits them personally. NORPAC is unique in that no participant accrues any personal benefit. It’s all for Israel and to promote the US-Israel relationship, and Congress is overwhelmingly – but not uniformly – receptive.

To be sure, there is tension, even trepidation, on Capitol Hill regarding the negotiations with Iran and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons capability. Few believe that President Obama is capable of effective negotiations, and many believe that he has little interest in preventing an Iranian bomb, as long as it doesn’t happen, as he says, “on my watch.” That is a sorry excuse for statecraft, as the global imperative to stop Iran does not end on January 20, 2017, which, in any event, can’t come soon enough. Republicans demonstrate unconcealed contempt for Obama, but that is largely matched by the Democrats’ ill-disguised contempt. Politicians being politicians, Democrats hitched their wagons to Obama when they thought the going was good, but now see a legacy of devastating electoral defeats, a diminished role for Democrats in Congress, and, not least, a reckless and amateurish foreign policy that endangers Israel, the United States, and other  US allies in the region.

It is not easy being a Democrat in Congress these days. Most want to be on record as both opposing the Iranian bomb and doing everything in Congress’ power to stop it and simultaneously not antagonizing the President. These Democrats are playing hardball. As one Congressman reported, Democrats were threatened by their own caucus that if they didn’t oppose the Pacific trade bill earlier this week, they would be stripped of their committee assignments and none of the proposed legislation would thenceforth be entertained. In other words, defying Nancy Pelosi is an act of political courage and self-immolation, and few politicians have a genuine interest in the latter. The former is generally in short supply.

Parties being parties, this type of pressure always exists on some level but it is usually reserved for major issues – not every single piece of legislation. It is why the votes in Congress are so partisan. The notion of voting one’s conscience on issues has faded. Mr. Smith, call your office. And this reluctance will play a significant role in the deliberations on any Iranian treaty down the road.

It is clear that so much of the negotiations are hype that is attempting to obscure the dissembling and double talk. To date, no one knows what was agreed to in March, as the Obama administration and the Iranians continue to disagree on fundamental issues that were supposed to have been resolved. To wit: will sanctions be lifted immediately (Iran) or over time, based on compliance (US)? Will inspections be open, spontaneous and unfettered (US) or limited, planned, and not at all on military bases (Iran)? Will Iran have to reveal its research and development or not? Will Iran have to close certain facilities or not? Will Iran have to ship its already-enriched uranium to a neutral country or not?

If one wonders what exactly was agreed to with all the hoopla in Lausanne, it is a good question. No one knows for sure. No contract worth the paper it’s written on could possibly contain such fluid, ambiguous and contradictory terms. Some hold that the Iranians are dissembling for domestic reasons (Democrats) and Obama is telling the truth, and others opine that the Iranians are telling the truth and Obama is spinning once again (Republicans). Of course, if everything was worked out – even a framework – there would be no need for advanced negotiations and an agreement with a June deadline. But the fear is – how familiar does this sound? – a treaty will have to be ratified in order to know what’s in it.

Even then, most sane people know that Iran cannot be trusted to adhere to any agreement, and the world’s security is bring entrusted to mad mullahs who easily manipulate an incompetent president, who, for whatever reason, is desperate to have as a legacy an agreement with Iran that allows them a nuclear weapon long after he is gone. In essence, Obama has taken the world from a better place to a bad place, negotiating from a starting point wherein Iran has no bomb and a weak economy suffering from the effects of crippling sanctions to an end point where Iran will have a thriving economy and a nuclear bomb. That is the art of negotiations as taught in the bizarro world. As the US is already providing Iran with billions of dollars in unfrozen assets – in order to “induce” them to negotiate – Iran has already begun subsidizing again the families of suicide bombers and stepping up its support for world terror. One would think that should matter but not to this President.

The good news is that congressmen on both sides of the aisle are skeptical. The bad news is that few see any way around Obama’s end run and the Republicans have little confidence that their Democratic colleagues will have the courage to defy their president. We can hope that Iran is so obstinate that no agreement results, but Obama’s yearning for an agreement is so intense that Obama will likely sign something, anything, and leave the fallout (literally?) to his successors. You can even play that interview now, from 2019. Obama: “When I left office, I had ensured that Iran will not have a bomb. If they have one now, it’s the fault of the current administration. Or George W. Bush.”

Congressman Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) gave us the most time of any Representative. He has his head on straight, has no illusions about Obama, and is worried for the future. He sees a president who just has a different vision for America that almost anyone else in DC, who has no great sympathy for Israel or other American allies and he just hopes that the damage can be minimized. He has the refinement of a true Southerner and the comfortable patriotism of a veteran military man (which, he is, as were his four sons). He was voted the second friendliest congressman, which led me to wonder what he did to lose out to the “friendliest congressman,” in this case Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Ca). As she is retiring, the title will soon be up for grabs. The competition must be a very subtle affair; you can’t shove your way to the title of friendliest member of Congress.

In truth, it is impossible to visit DC without having more sympathy for the politicians. They work long hours for relatively little pay, they are forced to balance hearings and votes with the avalanche of people who want to meet them, seek out their help or favors, and not to mention the different people who ask for incompatible things. And then at night they have to raise money to finance the permanent campaign to try to thwart those who wish to run against them and find fault with every decision that they make. It is hard to know why someone would want such a job, although I can guess.

In any event, Washington is always an inspiring place to visit, notwithstanding the occasional sordidness of the politics. The gleaming white marble, the impressive government buildings, the Mall and the very layout of the streets reflect power, grace, and the grandeur of a government chosen by free people, still a model for the world. It is still “We the People” who wield the ultimate power, and just showing up and reminding Congress of the importance of the State of Israel to us and to most Americans makes an immeasurable difference. It also safeguards the US-Israel relationship as it navigates the treacherous road past this administration into an uncertain future.

16 responses to “In the Halls of Congress

  1. “During this summer’s war with Gaza a thousand rockets could rain down on Israel, but what pained me most?

    The pummel of Facebook posts from friends calling for Israel to halt its aggression. As Gazan children perished as human shields.

    As the world looked on with horror when another school was bombed for the [missile] launch pad in its backyard. What most peaced me off was the launch of another naive & self-righteous long-distance call for peace.”

    SOURCE: Feeling “Peaced Off”
    by Chaya Lester • 2014/11/24

  2. Gabrielle Altman

    Please read NJ Congressman Scott Garrett’s press release from 5/14/15 on why he didn’t support the Iran bill. He agreeds with your stance and finds the terms of the bill to be weak and damaging.

  3. Mark Sokolow

    Check this out; m

    Mark I. Sokolow

  4. “In essence, Obama has taken the world from a better place to a bad place, negotiating from a starting point wherein Iran has no bomb and a weak economy suffering from the effects of crippling sanctions to an end point where Iran will have a thriving economy and a nuclear bomb.”

    I have two issues with this timeline.

    First, the negotiations themselves actually predate Obama. France, Britain, and Germany were attempting these negotiating with Iran as far back as 2005. At the time they were known as the “EU3”.

    Second, not all of the sanctions exist independently of Obama. American sanctions go back to 1979 and were dramatically expanded in 1996, but it was Obama’s Secretary of State (whats-her-name) who announced Chinese/Russian sanctions against Iran in March, 2010. Those sanctions really bite Iran and they are the result of our diplomacy, not the enemy of it.

    • What you don’t address is that there was no need to begin a new round of negotiations absent Iranian willingness to change its policies. That was all Obama’s doing. The Europeans – and Russia and China – have little interest in boycotting Iran, although Germany and France have been tougher than Obama and shocked at the extent of his concessions. But they are followers, not leaders – at least until recent years.
      You also ignore that Obama opposed Congressional sanctions repeatedly, tried to dilute them and was forced to accept them due to veto proof majorities. Then he pretended it was his idea. No wonder he fought tooth and nail to preclude any Congressional review of his treaty, but, if true to form, will now claim it was idea after all.
      – RSP

      • I think we’re getting somewhere. Here’s my take:

        The EU3, especially Germany, always believed that they were cagey enough negotiators to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program on their own. They were wrong. They didn’t have enough economic leverage against Iran and so the nuclear program marched forward.

        Meanwhile, the Bush administration believed that America alone had the leverage and so they passed some additional sanctions through Congress, believing that could deter Iran. They were also wrong. Iran’s nuclear program marched forward.

        In came the Obama administration with two key insights. One, that only Russian/Chinese sanctions would hurt Iran enough to bring them to the negotiating table. Two, that Russian/Chinese sanctions were actually possible to implement in the first place. They were derided for their naivete at the time, but they were right. They got the sanctions and the leverage against Iran that had eluded everybody else. Iran put their nuclear program on ice.

        But wait! Success came with a price. Bringing in those two countries also meant accommodating their demands. That meant finding a deal with Iran quickly and one that’s not as tough as what Angela Merkel would prefer. (I think she still believes that she could have done better on her own and I have a hunch that you would agree with her.)

        The bottom line is that there’s a catch-22 that often goes unmentioned. In order to play tough against Iran, we have to play nice with people (in Moscow and Beijing) that want to play nice with Iran. It’s a very delicate balancing act.

        How does one resolve that catch-22? Well I see how you resolve it. You argue that it doesn’t exist. You argue that Obama could have it all if he wanted. He could have a hardline against Iran AND somehow maintain the international sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table in the first place. You argue that we can walk away from a deal and that China/Russia will keep sanctioning Iran anyway. That, in essence, was Benjamin Netanyahu case before Congress. I’m sorry. But I find that argument to be wholly unconvincing.

  5. Maybe wilson lost out on the being the friendliest member of congress bc he threw a temper tantrum and yelled out “you lie” at the state of the union.

  6. Yeah, but how then did he beat out the other 433 members??

  7. Rabbi-
    Do you even think whatever power congress has in these negotiations means anything? Assuming a deal is made by next month the other Five Countries will lift sanctions. I would assume that will give the Iranian economy a huge boost. Not much Congress can do about that.

  8. The US still has the most leverage because the international banking system depends on the US.
    – RSP

  9. Though not Jewish, I support Israel. I am miffed as to why Jews do there best NOT to support them by supporting Democrats and by believing everything they tell them. I thought they were a more educated population. How can this tide be stemed of their hatred towards their own (the might as well join Hamas and become Muslim!) and the value system that they CLAIM they believe?

  10. You state members of Congress work long hours for little pay. They should not be paid in the first place as they make excellent salaries, get fantastic perks and garner more power than you can imagine. They are considered “public servants” but they serve no one but themselves and those who can keep them in the seat of power they desire.

    • And why shouldn’t they get paid? Wouldn’t no pay result in a Congress of the wealthy only?