There is chutzpah, and then there is whatever Congress did last week in the course of overriding President Obama’s veto of the JASTA bill.
JASTA, or the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, will enable American survivors of terrorist attacks to sue the foreign governments that funded those terrorists. It was written and passed largely to give the families of 9/11 victims the chance to sue Saudi Arabia for providing financial support to the perpetrators of that attack.
The White House was strongly opposed to JASTA and lobbied against it. Nonetheless, it passed both chambers of Congress by a wide bipartisan margin. President Obama, as he had promised to do, then vetoed the legislation.
Last Wednesday, both the House and Senate overrode the president’s veto in votes that were not even close. It was the first time in Obama’s presidency that Congress had overridden one of the 12 vetoes he has issued in office. (Which is a tiny number and probably has much to do with the fact that Congress has been historically unproductive in sending him bills to sign in the first place.) The vote in the Senate was 97 to 1, which is the kind of margin you usually only see when Congress is voting to name a post office or invade a sovereign nation for no good reason.
This would be just another disagreement between the legislative and executive branches if not for what happened next.
The votes had barely been counted when representatives and senators who had overridden the veto started blaming Obama for, in essence, tricking them into passing a bill without fully explaining to them the potential consequences.
On Thursday House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell… were also quick to blame the president for “dropping the ball” by failing to engage with Congress on the legislation before it passed.
“I wish the president — I hate to blame everything on him and I don’t — but it would have been helpful had he, we, had a discussion about this much earlier than last week,” McConnell said.
A mere one hour after the Senate vote, 28 senators, mostly Republicans but with a few Democrats (like Dianne Feinstein) mixed in, released a letter to JASTA’s two co-sponsors, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. John Cornyn. In it, the lawmakers noted that:
[C]oncerns have been raised regarding potential unintended consequences that may result from this legislation for the national security and foreign policy of the United States. If other nations respond to this bill by weakening U.S. sovereign immunity protections, then the United States could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military or intelligence activities.
Well, yes. You know how we knew that these consequences were possible before you vetoed this bill? Because the president himself had said it in the statement he released explaining his reasoning for his veto:
JASTA would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests. The United States has a larger international presence, by far, than any other country, and sovereign immunity principles protect our Nation and its Armed Forces, officials, and assistance professionals, from foreign court proceedings.
In other words, other nations might now feel it proper to weaken their own sovereign immunity laws so that victims of attacks in other countries could sue the United States government in foreign courts for, say, arming rebels who then maimed them, or disappearing someone into a CIA black site for years of detention and torture. Generally people who survive such activities are not going to be satisfied simply by the U.S. saying, “Our bad!” They might want to sue and get some money too.
The president also gave the same explanation in a nationally televised town hall last week on CNN, but maybe no one in the GOP caucus has cable.
So to sum up: Schumer and Cornyn spent almost seven years on JASTA, having first introduced a version of it in 2009. It has gone through countless drafts since then. Congress held hearings, listened to members of the administration explain their opposition, voted for it and then essentially re-voted by overriding a presidential veto. In all that time, according to Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and their cohorts, not one congressperson apparently read the bill or even had it summarized for them by a policy staffer, so they were unaware of the potential consequences if it became law. And this is somehow Obama’s fault.
Oh, and they would now like to amend it, please. Maybe after the election, since they’re on hiatus until then.
Essentially, Congress wants to have it both ways. Members, especially those locked in tight re-election battles, want to go back to their districts and brag that they stood up to Obama on behalf of 9/11 victims and against terrorists and their sponsors. But they also don’t want to give foreigners the right to sue Americans in foreign courts, because then the nation might have to limit some of its more imperialistic overseas activities to avoid messy legal entanglements.
So how to accomplish these conflicting goals? Blame Obama for not doing their jobs for them, apparently.
Even considering the last eight years of congressional obstructionism, this is breathtaking cynicism.