Why Senate's vote to sanction Russia matters

This week, as Americans celebrated our nation’s independence, we were reminded of the revolution that catalyzed America’s experiment in representative democracy. The founders understood better than most that revolutions are violent, bloody affairs, and so they designed a system of government that enabled revolutions thereafter to unfold peaceably. History heretofore has brought us several such revolutions. Indeed, one is unfolding in the halls of Congress right now.

The United States Senate recently approved new sanctions on Russia for its belligerence in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If the Republican-controlled House of Representatives follows the Senate’s lead, Congress will not only have taken affirmative steps to punish Russian aggression—it will have also reaffirmed the legislative branch’s role in foreign policy issues.

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The Senate’s vote to sanction Russia is thus significant for at least two reasons. First, President Trump’s unexplained, if not inexplicable, willingness to overlook Russia’s attacks on other nations’ sovereignty undermines the United States at home and abroad. Moreover, international norms dictate that an attack on another country’s interests justifies proportional countermeasures; yet, President Trump has puzzlingly ignored such attacks by Russia, a dangerous adversary. Thus, by thwarting the president’s wishes, the Senate positioned itself as a bulwark against the president’s harmful and irresponsible posture toward an aggressive foreign power. 

Second, by decisively acting on a matter related to foreign policy, senators may have begun to turn a tide which for decades has ceded power from Capitol Hill to the White House. Congress has long been remiss in its duties to shape foreign policy. Indeed, those who argue that technology has rendered the legislative branch’s role in foreign affairs ineffective ignore Congress’s willful abdication of its concurrent authority to affect foreign policy over time. And that willful abdication has cost our nation dearly, most notably in America’s misadventures in Iraq.

Circumspect of concentrated power, our nation’s founders wisely divided lawmaking authority between two co-equal branches of government. Far from an accident of history, that division of power ensures that no president can act without checks and balances. Thus, while the executive branch may enjoy immense powers of initiative in national security affairs, the legislative branch nonetheless possesses its own authority to shape foreign policy. As a practical matter, however, the president’s power in the international arena is largely unchecked unless Congress affirmatively asserts that authority.

In 1952, Justice Robert Jackson opined that, when Congress expressly or impliedly asserts its will, the president’s power to contravene the legislative branch’s wishes is at its “lowest ebb.” In other words, when Congress affirmatively acts on a matter, the legislative branch thereby denies the president all but those powers exclusively endowed to the executive branch by the Constitution. Thus, Congress and the president share concurrent authority unless Congress, by “inertia, indifference or quiescence,” fails to act.

Here, the Senate’s approval of new Russia sanctions not only denies President Trump the ability to forgive Russian jingoism but also effectuates a sea change in the balance of power along Pennsylvania Avenue. House agreement would thereby leave President Trump’s authority to relieve Russia of accountability high and dry while restoring the legislative branch’s role in foreign affairs.

President Trump’s turbulent early months in the White House presage more conflicts of interest to come. Therefore, Congress must be willing to act if it is to avoid allowing, if not inviting, abuses of power. Doing so will not only protect the American people; it will reaffirm the crucial role of Congress in foreign policy making. 

House leaders should therefore bring the Senate’s Russia sanctions legislation to the floor as soon as Congress returns from the Independence Day recess, thereby presenting rank-and-file members with a weighty choice: Do they stand with the Senate and the American people, or with President Trump and his cheerleaders in the Kremlin?

Scott A. Olson is a former congressional staffer and a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law. He is a Political Partner of the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.