Aug. 2, 2017 update: The Senate on July 27 voted 98-2 to approve the revised bill carrying new sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, and requiring more congressional review of attempts by the president to change such sanctions. That sent the measure to President Trump, who signed it Aug. 2, but not without reservations. He plans to issue a signing statement to highlight his concerns, according to the Washington Post.
Finally, some legislation Congress can agree upon: Expand and strengthen sanctions against Russia and don’t let the president fiddle with them.
The U.S. House on July 25 overwhelmingly approved a Russian sanctions bill that, if passed, represents the first major attempt this year by Republican lawmakers to address concerns about Russian behavior abroad. Representatives backed the measure by a vote of 419-3.
Idaho GOP Sen. Mike Crapo played a central role in introducing and securing support for the Senate version of the bill, which is both a sharp rebuke to Russia and a calculated move to strengthen congressional oversight of sanctions. The bill comes as Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia, but Crapo says it is not aimed at Trump.
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“If it goes through and the president signs the bill, which I believe he will, the message sent to Russia is that their overt aggression in areas like the Ukraine and their activities in Syria and their support of terrorism and so forth will not be tolerated, and that the United States, and hopefully many of our allies, will stand up to it,” Crapo told the Idaho Statesman.
Wielding the sanction stick
Economic sanctions aim to punish foreign governments for bad behavior. Since the previous Russian sanctions were enacted via executive orders and not codified into law, a president can easily lift or change them.
Through a series of executive orders in 2014, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea and backing pro-Russian rebels when fighting broke out afterward in eastern Ukraine. The UN says the conflict has killed more than 10,000 people. The sanctions, combined with related steps by the European Union, curbed U.S. exports, financing and other business benefiting Russia’s financial, defense and energy sectors.
Obama issued a new executive order last December imposing more sanctions after reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and of other cyberattacks and corruption misdeeds. The sanctions included shutting down two Russian-owned compounds in the U.S., expelling 35 Russian officials and clamping down on several Russian intelligence services.
But President Donald Trump has questioned the conclusion of federal intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the election meddling, and he has sought to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. His campaign’s relations with Russian-government representatives led to the appointment of a special counsel, former FBI chief Robert Mueller, to investigate. Democrats believe Russian interference helped defeat Hillary Clinton.
The Senate Banking Committee, which Crapo chairs, has jurisdiction over the sanctions and held hearings on their impact over three months this year.
“This is not uncommon with sanctions legislation,” Crapo said. “What we did was evaluate what we had in place and ... we believe there did need to be an increase in the sanctions.”
Crapo worked with his committee’s ranking Democrat, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, and with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and that committee’s ranking Democrat, Maryland’s Ben Cardin, to craft a bipartisan bill.
On June 14, Crapo introduced as an amendment to another bill legislation that locks in existing Russian sanctions, adds new Russian sanctions and curtails a president’s ability to lift or change them. The legislation was an amendment to a bill imposing sanctions on Iran.
The Senate, in a rare instance of bipartisan unity, passed the Crapo-led measure, 97-2.
But the bill stalled in the House, in part because it would have affected federal revenue, and revenue bills must originate in the House. Over the weekend, House leaders announced an agreement on a new version. That set up Tuesday’s vote.
The House bill (H.R. 3364, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act ) is comparable to the Senate version, but it also secures sanctions against North Korea.
Crapo said he is OK with the new House bill, though he has concerns about the North Korea sanctions, mainly because his Banking Committee is already working on North Korea sanctions legislation, and he wants to ensure that what the House included “is the right approach.”
Crapo thinks the Senate will pass the Russian/Iran/North Korea sanctions bill before Congress’ planned August recess.
Why rein in presidential authority to lift sanctions?
Crapo said some people may think Congress is trying to tie Trump’s hands with Russia, but that is not his goal.
“Over time, Congress yielded significant amounts of its (sanctions) oversight authority to the president,” he said. “The ability of the president to simply add or modify or remove sanctions unilaterally became very powerful.”
This became troublesome when President Obama unilaterally lifted sanctions on Iran, he said.
“There is a strong feeling in Congress that sanctions law should not have been expanded that far, to take Congress out of the ability to review these major revisions that a president can do in the current system ... whether it is the sanctions on Russia, the sanctions regime we are considering with North Korea, or the existing sanctions that still remain on Iran, there are many of us who believe the role of Congress has to be restored in sanctions law.”
“I know a lot folks are saying this is a message to Trump that he needs to get tougher on Russia,” Crapo said. “I am not one of those. The message to Trump is that we, Congress, have a very strong concern about Russia, and that we invite and welcome him in joining with us in strengthening our sanctions law and look forward to the United States standing firmly against Russia’s overtly aggressive efforts around the globe.”
Trump has little recourse. The bill passed the House 419-3 with a veto-proof majority and likely will do the same in the Senate.
Russia is top concern
Crapo has served in Congress for nearly a quarter century. In a constantly changing geopolitical climate, he said, Russia is of the most concern for him right now.
“The need for this legislation was underlined by the fact that many Americans have deep concerns about Russia’s behavior over the past few years,” said Crapo in a June 20 opinion column. “Since coming to power, Putin has become increasingly belligerent, nationalistic and autocratic.
“Currently, the United States has imposed sanctions on Russia for: Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and its role in supporting the separatist movements in eastern Ukraine; Russia’s increasing cyberattacks and cyberespionage against the United States; Russia’s support for the Assad Regime in Syria; and Russia’s complicity for corruption. Although this is not an exhaustive list, it demonstrates the lengths to which Putin will go to seize power and influence in the international arena.”
Crapo rejects any suggestion that the proposed Russian sanctions legislation is political.
“I am sure there are some who in a political way would like to try to spin that story, but the fact is I expect the president will sign this legislation,” Crapo said. “This is simply the United States of America, through our Congress and our president, strengthening our hand in our abilities to deal with Russia’s conduct.”