Editorial | Senators out of order in writing to leaders of Iran at this point

The 47 U.S. senators, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, who signed a letter to the leaders of Iran have intruded into the negotiation of foreign policy and muddled the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.

The letter informs the leaders of Iran that “Congress plays a significant role” in agreements with other nations and any deal not approved by Congress is “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Barack Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei,” reports William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau. The Obama administration and representatives of five other nations have been negotiating with Iran on a nuclear agreement.

The Douglas report puts the unusual letter in perspective: “Congressional Republicans have been highly critical of nuclear talks with Iran and have become even more vocal after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress, in which he warned of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.” All 47 Senate signers are Republicans.

The Constitution of the United States (Article II, Section 2) gives the president the power to make treaties with other nations, and to nominate and appoint ambassadors “with the advice and consent of the Senate.” In a 1936 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled: “The president alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; but he alone negotiates. Into the field of negotiations the Senate cannot intrude, and Congress itself is powerless to invade it.” The majority opinion in United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. noted an 1816 report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: “The President is the constitutional representative of the United States with regard to foreign nations.”

The letter represents the worst sort of partisan political meddling. Sen. Graham, a Judge Advocate General officer in the Air Force, has to know that a letter to Iran’s leaders crosses the line of separation of powers.

Such meddling is not limited to Republicans. When Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House, she talked to the president of Syria. That, too, “violated the unwritten rule that politics ends at the water’s edge on foreign affairs,” as Douglas writes.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was another violation of that unwritten rule. He was invited against the president’s wishes and even strong supporters of Israel questioned the propriety of having a foreign leader speak against actions of the president in the U.S. Capitol.

The hypocrisy of Washington politics is mind-boggling. It’s no wonder that folks across the political spectrum are so discouraged. A threatened Democratic filibuster forced Mitch McConnell to postpone a procedural vote on a bill requiring “congressional approval of any nuclear accord with Iran,” Douglas reported.

The letter is another example of how badly broken Congress is. Imagine the Republican outrage had Democratic senators written such a letter when Ronald Reagan was president. Graham likely would have called for the impeachment of Democratic senators who showed such an affront.

The letter to Iranian leaders goes beyond partisan hypocrisy and confusing the separation of executive and legislative powers. It is an egregious insult to the Constitution, the office of the president and to the folks back home who would like to see a little decency restored to our national governance.