Meaningful Governance in the Age of Permanent Crisis


The President and Congress do not always see eye to eye. But that tension is built into the very design of our constitutional democracy: one branch exists to check the others.

Sanctions policy is no exception. Since President Trump’s inauguration, Congress has introduced a number of bills seeking to curtail the President’s ability to ease sanctions on Russia, largely in response to the mounting evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. While the President has been quite vocal against the scrutiny he experiences from the left side of the aisle, the first bill came from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Last month a similar bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support (98-2), and more recently, the House, with a similarly sweeping vote count (419-3). As of last night, CNN reported that the bill is ready for a final vote in the Senate. After a series of negotiations, its present form imposes additional sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Like Senator Graham’s bill, the new sanctions bill will also add additional congressional oversight to any executive action seeking to ease Russian sanctions. The new communications director of the White House, Anthony Scaramucci, has since told CNN that President Trump may veto the bill.

Though economic sanctions have become a mainstay of the modern President’s foreign policy toolkit, the constitution grants Congress the broad authority to regulate commerce. Given they disallow business with foreign entities, sanctions thus fall under that authority.

The visualization below examines congressional activity related to sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, with each square representing a bill introduced in either chamber of the legislature. Only some of them went on to become laws (represented by black borders around the relevant squares).

Over the years, presidents have also vetoed congressional initiatives — though in many of the cases the bills included a wide swath of budgetary proposals.

Thanks to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, the President’s power has not been limited to the veto. The law allows presidents to take on additional power in the case that a threat from a foreign source warrants the declaration of a national emergency.

The Forty-Year National Emergency

But some emergencies never end. Jimmy Carter first declared a national emergency with respect to Iran in 1979. That emergency was most recently renewed for yet another year by President Obama in November 2016.

The balance of power driving U.S. foreign policy can be a source of tension not only between Congress and the President, but also between Presidents and their successors. Though President Obama continued the state of emergency initiated by former-President Carter, his administration sought to carve a different path in its dealings with Iran. As of January 16 of last year the Obama administration began lifting its nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, as per the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was signed by Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and the EU in 2015.

The JCPOA was met with significant criticism. President Obama’s successor was particularly critical of the agreement on the campaign trail, vowing to dismantle it. However, President Trump has not yet taken steps to do so. His administration recertified Iran’s compliance with the deal last week, though it issued a number of sanctions on individuals and companies related to Iran’s ballistic missile program.

By seeking to limit President Trump’s ability to adjust the course of U.S. foreign policy, the latest action by Congress on Russian sanctions would reclaim some power from sitting presidents, regardless of a declared emergency.

Many feel a certain amount of urgency given how the Trump administration and members of his campaign have handled Russian sanctions thus far. Though Donald Trump, Jr., reportedly discussed only the seemingly harmless topic of resuming Russian adoptions with attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, the current ban on adoptions was put in place by Putin as a reaction to a set of sanctions initiated by Congress through the Magnitsky Act in 2012.

Certainly, the addition of sons and daughters to the beltway players jockeying to influence U.S. foreign policy complicates matters further, but as our sitting President reminds us, eventually we will get something done.

To explore how U.S. sanctions policy has changed across different presidential administrations, check out our Sanctions Tracker.