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Nearly one hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson sat at his desk in the White House in a position to end the Great War. Up to that point, the war was the most violent conflict in human history and consumed more lives and produced more devastation than anyone had ever thought possible. Wilson took it solely upon himself and his administration to negotiate a treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, to bring an end to the conflict. When the Senate was asked to approve the treaty the vote fell largely along party lines. The Senate rejected the peace treaty; the first time in history the body had ever rejected a peace treaty. Thus, the United States was never signatory to the Treaty of Versailles.
Today, as debate rages on in Washington and throughout the United States about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), one key point continues to raise questions. Why was this agreement not considered a treaty? Late in July during a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on the Iran Nuclear Deal, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) asked the very same question. Secretary of State John Kerry’s response was both astonishing and worrisome. His answer was the agreement would have simply been too difficult to be approved by the Senate. Burdened by the threat of partisan politics, the proposed agreement would have likely died in the Senate and failed to obtain the required two thirds vote needed for approval. Without the required vote, the treaty may have become what is referred to as an “Executive Agreement.”
Since the founding of our nation and in accordance with the Constitution, any agreement forged with an international entity must be done so under the “advice and consent” from the Senate. With that, the agreement becomes binding. In the first two hundred years of our country, the United States Senate approved upwards of a whopping 1,500 treaties. Many had been withdrawn as they never gained support. In contrast, the Senate has rejected only 21. Two of those were the initial rejections of the Treaty of Versailles; another was the annexation of Texas. With so many accepted treaties and so few rejections, it’s clear our Senate worked to overcome differences.
However, in the 70 years since the end of World War II, it has become increasingly difficult to pass a treaty through the United States Senate. The numbers support this, the facts back it up. For instance, in 1952 alone, the United States signed 14 treaties and 291 executive agreements were forged. Executive agreements have continued to increase dramatically in every administration. Broadly speaking, some executive agreements may detail banking or finance initiatives. Others may deal with agriculture. One thing is clear however: foreign policy must never be a partisan issue. When lives of United States citizens are at risk, party politics should never be involved. This is one area where there needs to be dialogue in order to do what is best for the United States of America.
We live in a country where robust dialogue is entirely possible. People have different opinions. People will disagree with each other. That’s the beauty of the democracy that we live in. That being said, the process of the JCPOA did not include any of that. There was no chatter, no dialogue or no debates. If it wasn’t for the Corker-Cardin bill, which gives Congress the rare opportunity to disapprove of the bill, the JCPOA would be another executive agreement sealed in the walls of time.
Like the Treaty of Versailles, the Iranian Nuclear Deal was forged across international borders. However, unlike Versailles, an implemented Iranian Nuclear Deal will not be passed to usher in an era of peace, no matter how brief. A capable and well funded Iran will fundamentally change the landscape of the Middle East. The United States Congress and Senate must review the nuclear agreement carefully. They must do what is best (and safest) for our country in the short and long term. Our foreign policy will be dictated by this agreement for years to come, if not decades. With partisan politics running rampant throughout Washington, this cannot fall along party lines. This decision will chart our course for the future.
Originally published at The Hill: https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/250884-deals-past-and-present
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