On the House suspension calendar for tomorrow is this year's “Give Iran Hell Via Broad, Indiscriminate Sanctions!” legislation, known formally as HR 1905, the “Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011.” When a bill is placed on suspension, it means that it is being considered “non-controversial,” which this bill sure does seem to be, at least in Congress: 358 Members are currently cosponsors. However, hidden in the depths of this legislation is a provision that ought to be anything but non-controversial: a measure which aims to prohibit any contact between certain US and Iranian officials. I say “ought to be” because many cosponsors don't even know that this provision exists.
Let me give you the backstory. Back in May, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced HR 1905 as the obligatory annual Iran sanctions ramp-up bill. AIPAC then proceeded to make the bill a cornerstone of its 2011 lobbying—and when AIPAC comes knocking, we know that most Members of Congress have a hard time saying “no.” The legislation quickly earned the cosponsorship of over 80% of the House. Then, at the end of October, the bill went into committee markup. As often happens, some things got removed, some got added. One of the things that got added was section 601(c):
Just Foreign Policy joined the Friends Committee on National Legislation and 24 other organizations to call upon members of Congress to oppose a provision in HR 1905, the "Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011," which would make certain contacts between US and Iranian officials illegal. The letter text can be found below. You can find the full text of the bill here. The section in question, 601(c), can be found on page 101 and in full in the letter below.
Prevent War with Iran, Don’t Sabotage Diplomacy: Oppose Sec. 601c of H.R. 1905
December 8, 2011
On November 28, Representative Howard Berman, the ranking member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton expressing "grave concern" over the role of Honduran security forces in human rights abuses.
The letter goes into detail regarding the involvement of Honduran security forces in killings, torture and other crimes and states that it is necessary "to evaluate immediately United States assistance to ensure that we are not, in fact, feeding the beast."
The letter is here.
EFE reported about the letter on December 8 here (Spanish.)
Remember, "It's the Economy, Stupid?" So how come Democrats in Congress - over the objections of the Obama Administration - are helping Republicans press sanctions on Europeans who buy oil from Iran - sanctions that would increase unemployment in the U.S. during the 2012 campaign?
The National Defense Authorization Act now contains a Senate amendment by Republican Senator Mark Kirk - supported by many Democrats in Congress - that would sanction European banks and companies that do business with Iran's Central Bank, in order to stop Europeans from buying Iranian oil. This is a big deal, because Iran is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, and blocking Iranian oil exports to Europe would raise the price of oil, in Europe and in the United States.
Kirk's amendment would hurt the U.S. economy, at a time when economic contraction in Europe could push the U.S. back into recession.
Is fear of the economic blowback of the sanctions on Europe that Kirk wants to impose justified? Many Europeans seem to think so.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported:
The European Union is becoming skeptical about slapping sanctions on imports of Iranian oil, diplomats and traders say, as awareness grows that the embargo could damage its own economy without doing much to undercut to Iran's oil revenues.
"Maybe the aim of sanctions is to help Italy, Spain and Greece to collapse and make the EU a smaller club," one trader joked.
The remark reflects the growing unease that EU sanctions would hit hardest some of the continent's weakest economies, because Iranian oil provides the highest share of their needs, not to mention the rest of the bloc.
Reps. John Conyers, Ron Paul, Jim McGovern, Walter Jones, and Barbara Lee sent a letter to the NDAA conferees pressing them to accept the Senate Merkley language pressing for an accelerated drawdown from Afghanistan.
The letter is here.
Before and After: Washington Post Photo Gallery Headline
On Wednesday night, the Senate adopted by voice vote an amendment introduced by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley calling on President Obama to speed up U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. This was a watershed event towards ending the war. The previous high water mark of Senators calling for expedited withdrawal was 27; the previous high water mark on a vote was 18. The vote is a green light from the Senate to the White House for a faster military withdrawal that would save many American and Afghan lives and (at least) many tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.
Because it was a voice vote, there was no roll call. But, if you want to know who especially to thank, 21 Senators sponsored Merkley's amendment:
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR); Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT); Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM); Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY); Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH); Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT); Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK); Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM); Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA); Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD); Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND); Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL); Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY); Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA); Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT); Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV); Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) ; Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV); Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT); Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY); Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
The Senate vote - which saw John McCain standing alone in vocal opposition - is more evidence that on key issues of war and military spending, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Buck McKeon haven't been speaking for Republicans generally.
You might not know it from national press reports, but there are plenty of Members of Congress of both political parties who think that cutting the military budget is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and have concrete ideas for doing so.
(The New York Times did note last week that the leaderships of both parties are content to let stand the automatic cuts to the previously projected military budget mandated by the Budget Control Act.)
You can see that Senators have ideas for cutting the military budget from the list of amendments filed in the Senate to the National Defense Authorization Act, currently under consideration. [To weigh in with your Senators on these amendments, you can use the toll-free number established by the Friends Committee on National Legislation: 1-877-429-0678.]
Even if many of these amendments don't pass in the next few days, these ideas will still be nominees for consideration as the Pentagon considers how it wishes to cough up an additional half trillion dollars in savings from previously projected spending over the next ten years, as mandated by the Budget Control Act.
Shortening the war in Afghanistan by two years could easily pay half of the costs of an extension and expansion of the payroll tax holiday, the centerpiece of President Obama's jobs bill. Thus, the amendment put forward by Senator Merkley calling on the President to accelerate the drawdown in Afghanistan - which the Senate may vote on today - could make a significant contribution to creating more than half a million American jobs next year.
On Monday, Senate Democrats introduced legislation to extend the payroll tax cut. According to Majority Leader Reid, under the bill the average working family would have close to $1,500 a year more to spend. As the New York Times noted, "lower- and middle-income workers are the greatest beneficiaries of the tax cut."
Unfortunately, press reports indicate that Senate Republicans are very unlikely to support the bill, because to pay for the payroll tax holiday - which also would reduce the tax paid by employers - Democrats propose a 3.25 percent tax on gross income over $1 million.
From the point of view of the 99%, the appeal of paying for the payroll tax holiday with a tax on the very rich is obvious. As Paul Krugman has noted, the economic case for increasing taxes on the very rich is compelling.
However, if - as expected - the current Senate bill goes down to defeat due to Republican opposition, the question of how to pay for the extension of the payroll tax holiday will remain, so it makes sense to get some other good ideas for debt reduction which could pay for the tax holiday on the table.