December 6, 2023

Bypassing the White House



Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Bypassing the White House

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress on March 3. That he did so without informing or coordinating with the White House, and, further, that the date comes just two weeks before Israeli elections, has created a dustup.

Putting aside the diplomatic niceties regarding snubs and the like, the more significant question is constitutional. Article II, Section 2 specifies that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, and with the “advice and consent” of the Senate, given the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors. Over time, these clauses have been interpreted as giving the president the executive authority to conduct foreign policy. Even the unilateral ability to engage in military actions has been granted the president both through precedent and the War Powers Act, although only Congress can actually declare war.

Otherwise, Congress is confined to its use of the power of the purse to affect foreign relations, as it did by cutting off funds to South Vietnam in violation of commitments made to that nation during the Vietnam War.

This brings us back to the Netanyahu situation. President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador were invited to speak before joint sessions of Congress in 1987. In both instances the invitations were considered informal as opposed to state visits. However, President Ronald Reagan was in the loop in both visits. Since 1945, there have been dozens of official visits by foreign leaders who were invited to address a joint session of Congress, but until now there has never been either a formal or informal address in which the President of the United States was not involved.

The Netanyahu invitation is not just bad diplomacy or bad politics, it smacks of interference with the foreign policies of the nation. In this instance, it is an obvious attempt at an end run of the Obama administration’s attempts to halt Iranian nuclear weapons developments. In his State of the Union Address, the president said he would veto further sanctions against Iran while nuclear talks were ongoing and progress was being made. The Boehner invitation to Netanyahu appears to be a direct Republican response to that statement. Netanyahu has been adamant in his insistence that sanctions continue and be increased, and he may be right. He certainly is obligated to do all that is necessary to defend Israel, but bypassing the White House will not achieve such a goal.

Quite the contrary, if Netanyahu is seen as trying to undermine U.S. policy by dealing directly with a Republican-dominated Congress, there could well be a backlash. With the large Republican gains in the last election, Netanyahu may have come to the conclusion that Obama is a politically impotent lame duck. If so, he does not understand U.S. politics and he does not understand the tendency of Americans to close ranks at the water’s edge, and alienating Israel’s primary ally is not likely to prove beneficial for him in his upcoming election.

And Boehner? He is completely out of his element, and this interference and overstepping can only help to reveal him as such.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

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