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What role does Congress hold in international affairs?

March 18, 2015

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

In a rare but not unprecedented move, 47 senators signed an open letter to the leadership of Iran, stating that Congress or the next president could revoke any agreement that Iran makes with the executive branch regarding the Middle Eastern nation’s nuclear weapon ambitions.

The letter was written because many in the Senate’s Republican majority do not like the deal that President Obama is negotiating with Iran. The letter said that Obama’s limited time left in office means that Congress or the next president can revoke any agreement that is reached.

“It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system,” the letter said. “Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement… The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

The letter’s author, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, has said that the negotiations for Iranian nuclear disarmament do not go far enough. He says that the president is being too soft on Iran and that complete nuclear disarmament should be the goal, with tougher sanctions and the threat of military action if Iran does not comply.

Iran has been sanctioned by the United States and the United Nations for its nuclear weapons program. U.N. sanctions froze monetary assets linked to Iran’s nuclear program, created an arms embargo, and forbid foreign travel for Iranians involved with the nuclear program, among other restrictions. The current negotiations would end the sanctions if Iran agrees to cease attempts to develop a nuclear weapon and gives international inspectors access to all nuclear sites.

The senators’ letter riled the executive branch. The president said to Vice News: “I’m embarrassed for them. For them to address a letter to the ayatollah – the supreme leader of Iran, who they claim is our mortal enemy – and their basic argument to them is: don’t deal with our president, because you can’t trust him to follow through on an agreement... That’s close to unprecedented.”

Law professors and senators who did not sign the letter are not only criticizing the signers for overstepping the role and decorum of Congress, but are also saying the letter might be a criminal offense.

“[Senator] Tom Cotton’s letter to the leaders of Iran admonishing them that any agreement entered into today could be reversed by Obama’s successor… appears unprecedented for a group of opposition members of Congress to engage in such a communication. It may also be criminal [under the Logan Act],” Peter J. Spiro, professor of international law at Temple University, told Lyle Denniston of the National Constitution Center.

The Logan Act of 1799 forbids any U.S. citizen from attempting to make an agreement on behalf of the U.S. government without the government’s authority, either directly or indirectly, with another foreign government. Anyone who breaks the law can be imprisoned.

The law has been used only once – in a case in 1803 that fell apart before heading to the courts – and has never been enforced. Some say that the law is unconstitutional because it infringes on a citizen’s free speech right based on the modern understandings on the First Amendment. So the likelihood that any of the signers of the Iran letter will be prosecuted is slim. The signers also could argue that they are not private citizens but agents of the government and that the law wouldn’t apply.

The action by the 47 senators is not “unprecedented,” as Obama said. In 2007, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went on a fact-finding mission to pre-civil war Syria. Some said she violated the Logan Act because her mission was against the wishes of President George W. Bush. Sen. George McGovern visited Cuba and met with government officials in 1975 despite opposition from the Ford administration, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy sent emissaries to the Soviet Union in 1983, even though President Ronald Reagan said it would undermine his foreign policy. No charges were brought against any of these elected officials.

What does the Constitution say about the executive, Congress and international affairs?

Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution states the president “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties.”

The negotiations with Iran will not result in a treaty that the Senate needs to approve. The negotiations also include the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany. If they come to an agreement, the member states will take it to the United Nations for approval. Congress’ sole authority in this instance occurred when the Senate approved the president’s nominee, Samantha Power, as the ambassador to the United Nations. This authority is also an Article II, Section 2 power granted to the executive and Congress.

Presidential authority in international relations that do not involve treaties predates the Constitution. In U.S. v. Curtis-Wright Export Corporation in 1936, the Supreme Court found that the executive branch’s sole authority on foreign relations goes back to the time when English kings ruled over the colonies. With American’s independence, that power was transferred to the president. Justice George Sutherland wrote that “the President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation” and that the executive has greater leeway when dealing with international affairs than when handling domestic affairs.

What do you think?

Did the letter’s signers overstep Congress’ role in foreign affairs? Are the signers in violation of the Logan Act of 1799? Is the Logan Act constitutional? Do you agree that the executive’s authority in foreign relations is central as ruled in U.S. v. Curtis-Wright Export Corporation? Should Congress have a greater role in nontreaty foreign relations? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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Comments
12/29/2016
Brklyn, NY
Laura
St Edmond
They should be charged. They overstepped their boundries. Senators should not speak to foreign governments. That should only be for President, and his appointees, such as SOS.

3/18/2016
Stroudsburg PA
Lauren
Hanna/
I feel that congess plays a huge rule to deepen on what they believe. They should sign it and help out the people who need it. I think it helps all of us and the next kids to join our land today

10/5/2015
CA
Kevin
Mr. Jabro
I think that the senators who signed the letter overstepped Congress’ role in foreign affairs but they did not violate the Logan Act because according to the act any US citizen can not make an agreement with foreign government without the government’s authority, but the senators are a part of government not a common US citizen so I believe they did not violate the Act and they also did not actually make an agreement with Iran.Yes the Logan Act is constitutional because It gives protection to the country, it is for the betterment of the country.The executive authority in foreign relations is central.

4/29/2015
Irving/Tx
Sophia
Bradley/Nimitz
Congress has earned their right to deal with foreign affairs based on their reaction and response to Nuclear Iran.The president shouldn’t have all of the power over foreign affairs, as it creates an uneven balance of power, and these issues can have long term effects that will change the U.S. even after Obama is out of office. It is clear that some Republicans think its best for the U.S. not to make relationships with Iran especially where nuclear power is concerned. It could be easily used against us if relations were to turn sour. It's honorable of Obama to be trying to make amends with all nations across the world, especially such a hot area as the Middle East, but he shouldn't be able to make the decisions alone.

4/27/2015
Irving/Tx
Chellandria
Bradley/Nimitz
Congress should of never took role in the foreign affairs,because of the fact that isn't what their position require but I also believe of the situation they did right to take charge and react to the foreign affairs the way they did. Maybe Obama need help with these decisions he are making. Others should have the option to voice their opinions about the actions that are being taken. Obama doesn't have enough time to be in control of all the different powers he's given. It is good that he's trying to make relations with Iran but once something goes wrong then that is when the problem with the nuclear being used against us.

4/17/2015
Charlottesville/VA
Dylan
Bailey/Monticello
Congress did over step their role because it is not their job to deal with the foreign affairs. The signers are in violation because they went out of their boundaries. The act is constitutional due to our country and how it is works. I do agree that the executive's authority in foreign relations in central as rules in U.S. v. Curtis-Wright Export Corporation. Yes I believe that Congress should have a greater role in non-treaty foreign relations.

4/17/2015
Charlottesville/ VA
Kelsey and Ginny
Bailey, MHS
Yes, Congress overstepped because it is the presidents role to deal with all foreign affairs... The signers violated because the went out of their jurisdiction. We do agree because congress should not have to deal with more than foreign relations and other things that they are involved with. We do not think that congress should have a greater role because they already have enough power!

4/17/2015
Charlottesville/VA
Keenan
Bailey
Based on Congress and their actions toward Nuclear Iran, I believe their actions were necessary and that they have the right to deal with foreign affairs. It's unfair for Obama to have all this power and control with a highly important matter which can affect the United States once he's out of office. Republicans obviously do not want Obama to have relations with Iran especially upon the matter of Nuclear power which can easily be used against us if Iran gets ahold of this dangerous matter. I understand that Obama's trying his hardest to have good relations with countries including the Middle East which has taken thousands of innocent lives (a majority of our soldiers).

4/17/2015
Charlottesville/VA
Daniil
Bailey/Monticello
Letter's singers over stepped Congress' role. Also, they violated the Logan Act and over stepped the low. I think that Congress should have a greater role in non-treaty foreign relations.

4/17/2015
Charlottesville/VA
Aaron
Bailey/Monticello
Congress was out of line in with writing the letter. Our President is in charge of dealing with foreign affairs and policy; therefore, he should be the one in charge of deciding what other countries to help. The signers of the letter are in violation of the Logan Act. Congress has showed us their ability to bicker over important subjects; unfortunately, they don't always provide the results we need. Congress does not need a role in foreign relations. Our government spends enough time arguing with one another, and with one person in charge of foreign policies, it can reduce the number of quarrels in our nation.

4/17/2015
Charlottesville, Virginia
John
Bailey/Monticello
President Obama went too far. The American people elect their Senators for a reason and they need to have a voice in any matter with the severity of this one. If almost half of the senators signed this letter than there are surely a few more who feel the same way but just didnt sign the letter due to their own reason. Congressmen are under the Government title, therefore, they did not commit any crime.

4/17/2015
Irving/Texas
Abraham
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that congress role was overstepping their own role in foreign affairs. I believe, that congress should have not approve to send that message, regarding of reversing of what Obama has agreed too. Since it is something that can complicate the relationship with Iran. Also I believe that not everyone is above the law, and the signers argued that they weren’t private citizens but agents of the government, which I think they are just finding loopholes to get away from their consequences. Also the letter should have been consulted with the president before it could be sent to the supreme leader of Iran. I think the senate’s letter was offensive but it could have been different.

4/17/2015
Irving/Texas
Maggie
Bradley/Nimitz
Yes the letter signer overstepped Congress' role in the foreign affairs because only the president do foreign policy through independent and negotiation. The senators were in complete violation of Logan Act of 1799 because it was beyond their jurisdiction. Logan Act is constitutional because if the country is facing an unstable relationship with a country,the document might have set them off. Yes i do agree because it's very centralized. No Congress shouldn't have a bigger role in non treaty foreign affairs because they can never come to unanimous agreement on anything.

4/17/2015
Charlottesville/VA
Melanie
Bailey/Monticello
Congress over stepped there role, it is the presidents job to deal with all foreign affairs and this letter sent t Iran is ridiculous, what they did isn't right. They did violate the Logan Act because they over stepped their jurisdiction. The Act is constitutional due to our country already facing rocky relationships with other countries and this could make the situation worse. Yes I do agree because its centralized. I believe congress shouldn't have a greater role on foreign relations because they already have too much power and can never really all come to an agreement on things

4/17/2015
Irving/Texas
Brian Vigen
Bradley/Nimitz
The Senators who signed off on the letter to Ayatollah of Iran completely overstepped their constitutional authority. The president is solely responsible in the development of treaties with other nations, granted by Article II, section II of the constitution, the Logan Act of 1798, and the decision of US v Curtis-Wright. The vapid actions of Tom Cotton and fellow senators act against the Logan Act of 1798. Although they are agents of the government, they acted without the consent, approval, or authority of the government. Making unauthorized negotiations with other nations is not exercising free speech since it transcends US law.

4/17/2015
Irving/Texas
Rebecca
Bradley/Nimitz
The letter's signers overstepped congress's role in foreign affairs given the nature of Obama's deal with Iran, given that it is not a treaty that would require Senate ratification and therefore also not a treaty that Obama's predecessor could dismantle, as the senators in the letter suggest. It seems a moot point anyway for Senators to step out and take such a risk by sending this letter given the broad range of international support for the deal, and the fact that Congress approved of the nomination of the US representative who will have the final say on this deal when it reaches the UN. I agree with the Executive's authority in foreign relations and believe that, as it stands, Congress enjoys an acceptable position of having some, but not too much , power over foreign affairs.

4/13/2015
Irving/Texas
Carol
Bradley/Nimitz
Yes the letter signers overstepped Congress' role in foreign affairs because only the president can make foreign policy through independent action and negotiation. The senators were in complete violation of the Logan Act of 1799 because it was beyond their jurisdiction. The Logan Act is constitutional because if the country is facing an already rocky relationship with a country, the document might set them off. Yes I do agree because because it is very centralized. No Congress should not have a greater role in non treaty foreign affairs because they can never come to a unanimous agreement on anything.

4/10/2015
Irving/Tx
Eddie
Brafley/Nimitz
The undermining of the president in congress is unacceptable. A government divided against itself can not stand, by sending that letter to Iran the 47 senators essentially doomed president Obama nuclear talks with iran essentially labeling them as "going to be revoked". however i dont believe they broke the Logan act. I dont believe what they did was criminal. However the president as written in the constitution is to be the host of all foreign dignitaries. something the senators fails to address.

4/7/2015
Irving/Texas
Kamille
Bradley/Nimitz
Though Congress did not breach the Logan Act of 1799, it is safe to say they did cross a line. Rather than have a feud between each other over every topic they are given, the US government should be more cohesive as well as supportive of each differing side, specifically regarding foreign affairs and relations. The US v Curtis-Wright Export Corporation was only one of many. Because I feel that Congress is dominated by one political party, the Republican Party, which I believe can be a bit ... self involved or not having the ability to look at the entire picture while still remaining unbiased, I think it is important that we not reward Congress with any more power. In fact, they need to be given less power, or at the least, reprimanded for breaking rules or abusing their authority.

3/26/2015
Irving/Texas
Ali
Bradley/Nimitz
While congress did not violate the Logan Act of 1799, they did overstep their role. The united states government needs to be on the same page and not contradict each other especially when dealing with foreign relations. The U.S v Curtis-Wright Export Corporation was a just one.

3/25/2015
Irving/TX
Rabab
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that the senators who signed the letter overstepped Congress’ role in foreign affairs but they did not violate the Logan Act because according to the act any US citizen can not make an agreement with foreign government without the government’s authority, but the senators are a part of government not a common US citizen so I believe they did not violate the Act and they also did not actually make an agreement with Iran.Yes the Logan Act is constitutional because It gives protection to the country, it is for the betterment of the country.The executive authority in foreign relations is central. Yes I believe that Congress should have a greater role in non treaty foreign relations in order to represent the whole nation rather than one person.

3/25/2015
Irving/Texas
Brittany
Bradley/Nimitz
The letter signers overstepped Congress' role because the President had already addressed the issue and the letter signers only added confusion to the situation. The letter signers didn't violate the Logan Act of 1799 because they didn't make any agreements in the letter. I agree with the U.S. v, Curtis-Wright Export Corporation ruling, the executive branch should always have authority in foreign affairs. Congress should only be given a greater role if they can be trusted to not cause a problem to escalate.

3/23/2015
Irving/Texas
Jamon
Bradley/Nimitz
In my defense I believe that the people who signed those letters did over step their boundaries in their role over Congress in foreign affairs but did not violate the Logan Act of 1799. Well for starters the signers did not make treaty with Iran that is just point blank with that an as far as going to say that they violated the Logan Act nope i don't think so an here is why I say that. This act states that it forbids any citizen of the U.S. to make an agreement without government approval directly or indirectly with another foreign government. Anyone who violates this will be imprisoned. An the signers did not do that, an this act is debatable between being labeled as constitutional or unconstitutional.

3/23/2015
Irving/TX
Cynthia
Bradley/Nimitz
In my opinion, the forty-seven senators who signed the open letter to the leadership of Iran overstepped Congress’ role in foreign affairs because they should have had consent of the president. From my point of view, the signers are in violation of the Logan Act of 1799 because even though they are agents of the government, they are also still citizens of the United States. The Logan Act is constitutional because although it does take away some of the freedom of speech a citizen has, there is a purpose for that, it protects the country. The executive’s authority in foreign relations is central because it makes important decisions that allow others to see how our country works, showing leadership with the United Nations. Congress should have a greater role in non-treaty foreign relations because this kind of responsibility should not be done by just one person, it should reflect how the nation works as a whole.

3/23/2015
Irving/Texas
Jayden
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe the signers of the letter did overstep Congress' role in foreign affairs; however, I don’t believe that the signers are in violation of the Logan Act of 1799. According to the text, "the Logan Act of 1799 forbids any U.S. citizen from attempting to make an agreement on behalf of the U.S. government without the government’s authority, either directly or indirectly, with another foreign government. Anyone who breaks the law can be imprisoned." Because the signers did not necessarily make a treaty with Iran, I strongly believe that they did not violate this act. On the topic if the Logan Act is constitutional or not, I am on the fence; one one hand, I see that this act could be classified as unconstitutional due to the fact that it limits first amendment right, but I also see the possibility of being labeled as constitutional, because it protects the government's right to make treaties.

3/22/2015
Irving/Texas
David
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe the letter’s signers did overstep Congress’ role in foreign affairs; the president had already spoken on behalf of the U.S. government, and anything else said afterward to go back on our word is almost unreliable and untrustworthy. I don’t believe, however, that the signers are in violation of the Logan Act of 1799; they didn't necessarily make an agreement with Iran, they just gave a “forewarning.” I think the Logan Act is constitutional because it protects our government’s right to make treaties with foreign nations in a professional political sense, but also violates the 1st amendment to a degree if it was to get in the way of free speech; however, an average citizen shouldn't be making treaties with foreign nations of any kind for any reason. The executive’s authority in foreign relations should be central as it reflects our country in a forceful way, stating that we can make agreements and enforce them. Congress should have a greater role in non treaty foreign relations in order to better represent the entire nation rather than just one man’s decisions in a treaty, but after what happened with Iran, perhaps Congress isn't ready to go off on their own just yet.

3/19/2015
Irving/Tx
Jennipher
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that the signers of the letter did overstep the boundaries of the congressional role in foreign affairs because the letter is a contradiction to everything that the Iranian government has been told by the executive branch. Although this does not have a direct effect on the president it can cause Iran to doubt the words spoken by the United Nations and the executive branch of the United States. Contrastingly, I do not believe that the signers were violating the Logan Act of 1799 because they were not trying to make an agreement on behalf of the government they were simply stating their opinions and sending them to people that they believe could impact decisions that will be made in the future. The Logan Act, like many others, is not constitutional because it limits the rights given to citizens by the First Amendment. I do believe that the executive branch has a strong role in the foreign affairs of our country and often makes some of the most important decisions alongside the United Nations. Personally, I conclude that Congress should have a greater role in foreign affairs in order to have more than one parties opinions about certain decisions that could end up effecting the entire country and all of its citizens.

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