47 Again – The Letter to Iran

March 13, 2015

Remember 47? in case you don’t, Fact-checking Romney’s “47 Percent” Comment by Lucy Madison for CBS on September 25, 2012 will refresh your memory.

I mention 47 because the number is back in the news, brought to you again by the Rs. On Monday, March 9, Senator Tom Cotton (Rep.-Ark.) authored a letter to the Iranian government about the nuclear proliferation deal being negotiated between Iran, the U.S., and five other nations. Here’s the letter, signed by Senator Cotton and, you guessed it, 46 other Republican senators. If one more or less senator’s signature was on the letter, my theme would have been blown!

Numbers, theme, and kidding aside, the conduct at issue should shock anyone who understands the concept of separation of powers. In our country the president conducts foreign policy. See, United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936) In the Curtiss-Wright opinion Justice George Sutherland Noted:

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 negotiation the Senate cannot intrude, and Congress itself is powerless to invade it.

Our structure has no place for a letter on Senate stationary, to a foreign nation with which the United States is presently negotiating, which has as its sole purpose torpedoing those negotiations. We even have a law—it’s been around since 1799—which addresses this situation. It’s called the Logan Act, it’s codified at 18 U.S.C. § 953, and here’s what it states:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.

Paul J. Larkin, Jr. has written a smart piece for The Daily Signal, Why Tom Cotton’s Letter Did Not Violate the Logan Act, and I think he’s probably right. Regardless, for a Logan Act prosecution is not the issue, the letter was dumb, wrong, and an outrage. For clarity on this issue, read Republican Idiocy on Iran from the New York Times editorial board on March 11. (Note to my readers who say “sure, MSM, and the NYT at that, rare is the occasion when a New York Times editorial board writes so aggressively. The Times may be liberal—less so than people think—but its writing is usually cautious and measured.)

Finally, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. The letter has not set well with the country, and that fact has brought forth explanations. Unnamed aides claim the letter was “cheeky” and that the Administration needs a better sense of humor. From Senator John McCain (Rep.-Ariz.) we’ve gotten “I sign lots of letters” and hurrying to leave town because of a snowstorm. And, best of all, there’s Senator Rand Paul (Rep.-Ky.), claiming the letter was an attempt to be helpful, and “strengthen the president’s hand.” Sure, Senator Paul, because we all know Republicans in Congress have been about trying to help President Obama since he was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. Not. (For non-clickers, here’s the lede: “As President Barack Obama was celebrating his inauguration at various balls, top Republican lawmakers and strategists were conjuring up ways to submarine his presidency at a private dinner in Washington.”)


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