For Republicans, it’s hard to find many bright spots about what has increasingly become a miserable 2016 campaign. Here’s one: It’s briefly taken attention away from the raging Dumpster fire that is the GOP-controlled 114th Congress.
Since Republicans took full control of Capitol Hill in 2015, Congress has been a complete failure. The House spent more time investigating Benghazi than doing anything about the Zika virus. The Senate dropped the ball on confirming judicial- and executive-branch appointees, and couldn’t even be roused to grant a hearing for President Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
But last week was a new low, even for this Congress.
For the first time during Barack Obama’s presidency, Congress overrode a presidential veto. The legislation, titled the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, effectively gave American citizens the right to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and it passed with overwhelming support.
But after overriding Obama’s veto, the GOP-controlled Congress came to the realization that the legislation wasn’t such a good idea.
You see, the legislation would remove sovereign immunity from countries that are alleged to have connections to foreign terrorists — and taking away this immunity could have major implications for US officials.
As President Obama noted in his statement vetoing the bill: “The United States has a larger international presence, by far, than any other country, and sovereign immunity principles protect our nation and its armed forces, officials, and assistance professionals, from foreign court proceedings. These principles also protect US government assets from attempted seizure by private litigants abroad. Removing sovereign immunity in US courts from foreign governments . . . threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.”
Yet, amazingly, after the bill became law, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said, “It appears as if there may be some unintended ramifications” of this bill.
No kidding, Mitch.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who would now like to close the barn door after the horses have escaped and the barn is on fire, said Congress should look for ways to protect service members from “legal ensnarement.”
Congress finally passed an actual piece of legislation, and it still found a way to screw it up.
But here’s the best part: McConnell, rather than taking responsibility for Congress’s mistake, is blaming Obama for it. “This was an example of an issue that we should have talked about much earlier,” he told reporters on Thursday — as if the administration and its allies didn’t repeatedly point out the problems with the bill. Simply put, McConnell is holding Obama responsible for failing to prevent Congress from doing something idiotic. The Party of Personal Responsibility strikes again.
But, of course, Obama could have flown a plane over the Capitol reading “This Is a Bad Idea” or sent an Instagram to McConnell that said “You will be putting American service members and diplomats at risk” if you pass this bill — and it wouldn’t have mattered.
The fact is, Congress found an issue with broad popular appeal (sue the people responsible for 9/11). They were easily able to amass congressional support for it, even from Democrats (who wants to be seen siding with Saudi Arabia?). They overrode a veto because if Obama is publicly opposed to something, then the GOP has to take the opposite position. And then when the whole thing blew up in their faces, they tried to blame the one person who tried to stop them.
This election year we hear a lot of talk from voters about being fed up with Washington. If the electorate is really angry, they should perhaps start with the Congress — and the political party that they elected to control it.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.