With President Trump pulling out the Iran deal, I have heard many ask the question, “How can the president unilaterally pull out of a deal that America has already agreed to?” This was the same question asked after President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords. The answer is a simple one, a previous president unilaterally agreed to both deals; if a single man can make the deal than a single man can break it. As always, I am not arguing the pros or cons of the Iran agreement, time will tell if the president made a wise choice, I want to look at the history of such treaties.
If it seems too easy for one person to make and break agreements, I agree, and I think the Constitution agrees. There are two parts of the Constitution that confuse me with this issue, Article 1, Section 1 states “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” What this means is that only Congress can make laws, not the president or anyone else. What role did Congress have in this agreement?
In Article 2, Section 2 it states, “He shall have power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur” this means that the president cannot make a treaty without approval of the Senate, so how was it possible that President Obama made a treaty with Iran without either advice or consent of the Senate.
With both the Paris agreement and the Iran deal, President Obama circumvented Congress because he knew he lacked support in the Senate. Congress represents the people and if the president cannot get a deal through Congress, maybe it should not have been passed. When did it become that Congress makes the laws and approves treaties unless the president disagrees with Congress?
To me this completely circumvents the intent of the Constitution. I tell my students that the only thing worse than gridlock in the government is no gridlock at all. The point of division of government was to prevent tyranny. When we allow the president to make laws with no oversight, that is exactly what we are allowing, tyranny of one.
This goes for both President Obama and President Trump making decisions by themselves. They are not the only ones; most recent presidents have had their share of executive orders. According to the American Presidency Project, President Obama signed 276 executive orders, while President Bush signed 291. Some of these are just organizational housekeeping, but more and more they are making laws. President Obama even once said he would ask Congress to pass an immigration law, but if they failed to do so, he would just sign an executive order.
The president and Congress arguing over deals is not new. One of the most famous arguments came at the end of World War I and has some familiar tones today. With the Great War winding down, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson took a leading role in drafting the Treaty of Versailles, which included his Fourteen Points, one of which was the League of Nations. The president’s failure was not getting Republicans’ input. The five-man peace delegation had only one minor Republican, even though the party controlled Congress. When the treaty was presented at home, Republicans led by isolationist Henry Cabot Lodge blocked its passage. They feared loss of control to an international body like the League of Nations.
The Republicans issued a separate treaty, which was also defeated by Democrats at the president’s insistence. Unable to push the treaty through Congress, the president took it to the people. He spent the next few weeks crossing the nation by train to build up support for his plan. Unfortunately for President Wilson he did not get the support he hoped for, instead he suffered a stroke and was brought back to Washington. The treaty and the League of Nations was never ratified.
Today this would be a different story. If President Wilson could not get his treaty accepted, he could have skipped congressional approval and passed it himself. Today we would have joined the League of Nations, that is until the next president came along and took us out creating difficulties with our allies.
Checks and balances are in the Constitution for a reason. Large foreign policy decisions are too important for one person. At minimum, the president should get advice from the Senate, at best full congressional consent before we sign any deal.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha