It only took seven years and nine months for Congress to successfully override a veto by President Obama. Of course that statement would imply that the Senate and House have been relentlessly trying all of this time. They haven’t.
It is really a shame that the juvenile tenor of our presidential election has gotten in the way of a fantastic example of the intricacies of congressional strategy. What happened in Washington this week is actually pretty important. If polled, I wonder how many Americans even know what happened.
Thank goodness I’m here for you.
In May, the Senate passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, on a rare voice vote. On September 9, two days before the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the House followed suit. The law allows the families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for the kingdom’s alleged backing of the attackers. Simple enough, right?
On September 23 however, President Obama vetoed the bill as expected. In his veto message, he warned that the move would expose our own military personnel, and others, to similar judicial exposure that Saudi Arabia would face under JASTA. In his message, he warned of the peril the law creates by “taking such matters out of the hands of national security and foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of private litigants and courts.”
So, what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.
The families of victims of 9/11 want justice against a sovereign nation which they believe contributed to the attacks. Neither President Bush’s or President Obama’s administrations were willing to place blame with the Saudi government. The families want their day in court. But do we want America, or Americans to face civil exposure for our own actions going forward?
It is quite the dilemma.
On Wednesday, five days after the president’s veto, the Senate overrode it on a 97-1 vote. A few hours later, the House again followed suit by overriding it on 348-77 vote. Hooray for the families of victims! Until Thursday, when Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan both expressed concern and remorse about the exposure the new law creates for us as a nation. As if that was something unknown a day prior.
McConnell sort of, kind of blamed the Obama administration for not protecting them from themselves as the leader began to acknowledge the need to “fix” some of the new law’s problems. He said the flawed process “was a good example of the failure to communicate early about a piece of legislation that was obviously very popular.”
It is a better example of doing something because it is popular, even though it is clearly unwise. Sort of like feeding your kids ice cream and cake for breakfast.
Putting politics aside for today, this is an excellent example of how our three branches of government are not buried in the impenetrable silos that many Americans believe them to be.
The berieved families want their day in front of the judicial branch. They successfully pressured the legislative branch to grant their entrance to it. And only a lame duck executive branch was willing to take the unpopular but spot-on correct position that what was being suggested as a remedy was simply wrong.
This is a classic three legged stool. Without further “fixing” by the soon to be lame duck congress after the election, and the already lame duck president, a court receiving such a suit will become an uncomfortable place. Again, putting politics aside, the expected plaintiffs’ case is less than a slam dunk.
So having laid this out as briefly as a long winded process wonk can, let me circle back to the worst part of this mess for me. It is a shame that more Americans are not paying very close attention to it.
Elections and campaigns are a big part of who we are. But this upcoming election hung over JASTA like the darkest of clouds. Most Americans would attribute that darkness to middle-of-the-night tweets about beauty pageant drama from decades ago, or conspiracy theories related to malfunctioning microphones.
But in this regard, the cleanest, most conventional election would have had a similar impact on the matter. It is a reality about our system of governing that isn’t great.
Who among us wants the unenviable task of giving the 9/11 victims’ families the news that punitive judicial justice is not going to be an option for them?
Congress clearly does not. President Obama doesn’t want to do it, but knows under these circumstances, it is the right thing to do. I have no confidence that there’s a court that will heal the families’ pain either.
This election cannot end soon enough. We need to get back to work.