Why Would He Do This?

Yesterday Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress in February, which he accepted.  While on the surface this may seem relatively innocuous, it would not be the first time that he addressed Congress, in reality this invitation is an “in your face” move by Speaker Boehner and a direct challenge to President Obama. While technically not required, as the Speaker pointed out he can invite anyone he pleases to speak to Congress, it is highly unusual as the Speaker gave no advanced notice to the Obama Administration.  Diplomatically, historically and in keeping with protocol, not to mention good manners, the Speaker should have coordinated the invitation with the administration.  It is customary that a head of state invite, or at least tacitly agree to, another head of state coming to the United States on official business.  And oh yeah. According to the Constitution, the Executive Branch is responsible for foreign affairs.  This does not, of course, mean that the Congress does not have a role to play in oversight of foreign affairs.  Indeed they do have a role and an important one at that. The Senate is tasked with the duty to “advise and consent” to Ambassadorial appointments, treaties and other functions related to foreign affairs.  The House does not have that role, but they do control the money and that is the primary way that they influence such matters.

Equally rude was the revelation that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not inform the Obama Administration about the invitation either.  It could be because the Israelis did not want to get in the middle of an American political dispute.  It could be because the Prime Minister is himself in the middle of a contentious re-election campaign and an appearance before the U.S. Congress can only help him in his bid.  It could be because the Israelis, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, could care less about any American policies, they are only interested in protecting their own interests.

Why is this a big deal?  Besides the theatrics and political gamesmanship, behind Speaker Boehner’s move is the ongoing negotiation with Iran about its nuclear weapons ambitions.  Many Republicans, and some Democrats, (and certainly Prime Minister Netanyahu) believe that President Obama is about to make a “bad” deal with the Iranians that will give them the ability to produce nuclear weapons on short notice.  Those that oppose any deal, or at least the deal currently under negotiation, with the Iranians want to impose more and more severe sanctions now on the Iranians and keep them on until they, in essence, capitulate and remove any nuclear capability whatsoever.  The current negotiations would allow the Iranians to keep peaceful nuclear reactors for generating electricity and for research, but with significant restrictions and under a severe inspection regime.  There are currently sanctions in place with Iran which, coupled with the dramatic drop in the price of oil, have a significant impact on their economy and brought some in their government around to the possibility of agreeing to the constraints on their nuclear program.

To be sure, there are Iranian hard-liners in influential positions in their government that oppose any deal.  The current negotiations are not a sure thing.  President Obama clearly states that there is “probably less than a 50-50 chance” of the negotiations succeeding.  He is willing to put more sanctions in place if the negotiations fail, but strongly opposes any further efforts now as he argues that the chance of success will fall from 50-50 to zero.  It will also have an impact on negotiations with other nations as the move would be perceived as the United States (and other nations, more on that shortly) reneging on their good faith negotiations.

These are not unilateral negotiations.  Negotiating partners (sometimes referred to as the P5+1) include the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China working to get Iranian concessions on their nuclear program.  In a press conference during his visit to the United States last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said  that he told U.S. senators that “it is the opinion of the U.K. that further sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.”  In today’s Washington Post the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the European Union wrote an opinion piece directed at the United States Congress delineating the progress made to date in gaining International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iranian reactors and other progress in providing oversight, and subsequent limitations, on the Iranian ability to produce a nuclear weapon.  They ask that diplomacy be continued to allow further progress and specifically make the point that:

“new sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far.  Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.”

Given such overwhelming international support and concern, it baffles me why members of Congress would actively work to undermine our negotiating position.  Several have advocated military action to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities, a view shared not coincidentally by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  President Obama did not take military action off the table, stating only that it should, rightly in my opinion, be the “last resort” when no other option remains.  We are not there and probably will not be there for some time.

I do not mean to impugn the good intentions or character of members of the House and Senate that truly believe that Iran poses an imminent threat to the United States and its allies.  However, I do not believe that all of those that advocate increased sanctions on Iran do so out of that belief.  I think that Speaker Boehner’s move to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will undoubtedly advocate for increased sanctions, if not military action, against Iran is motivated by domestic politics to embarrass the president and to imply that the president is not concerned about the well-being of Israel.

Speaker Boehner is playing with fire.  Perhaps he is trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing harsh sanctions on Iran, causing them to withdraw from the negotiations, and thus providing the opportunity to spout an “I told you so” about the president being naive, weak, a poor leader or all of the above.  The usual talking points.

Again,  the best analysis is that there is a 50-50 chance that the negotiations will succeed.  The best analysis, including from our closest allies, is that harsher sanctions will doom the process and sink that chance of success to zero.  The process has only a few more months to play itself out.  Why must the Congress act now?  Harsher sanctions may indeed be in order if the Iranians withdraw, or dissemble, or otherwise bargain in bad faith.  But we are not there yet.  This is a serious issue and there are serious arguments that can, and are, made on each side of it.  In the end, our national security is only our business and no one else’s, we need to do what is right for our own national interests.  Got it.  Let the debate begin.  But this spiteful move is not what one would expect from the Speaker of the House.

So why would he do this?  To use a domestic political ploy to embarrass a sitting president of another party by playing with serious international problems.  Speaker Boehner, you’ve made your point.  You won’t be ignored.  Now let’s get serious.

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Just Get On With It Already

As many of you know, the first real order of business for the new Congress last week was to address the building of the Keystone XL pipeline.  This is the project that will bring Canadian shale oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico down the middle of the United States.  The project is 1200 miles of pipeline from the Canadian border to Nebraska where it will meet up with existing pipelines.

As I’ve written before, to me this is a tempest in a tea pot (and I do not mean Teapot Dome).  Let’s just get on with it and build the thing.  Too much time, energy, money and political capital have been spent on an issue that has not really been addressed on the merits, or lack thereof, of the issue, but rather on the symbolism attached to it by both those that support the project and those that oppose it.

Last week the House voted 266-153 on a measure that pushes the project forward.  The Senate is preparing to debate their version of the bill and it is likely to be a long and contentious session because in addition to the emotion surrounding the issue, there is a long list of proposed amendments to the bill ranging from the science behind climate change to the requirement to use United States produced steel in the construction of the pipes used.

President Obama has already threatened to veto any bill requiring its construction.  Primarily, the stated reason is that it violates the Constitutional powers awarded to the Executive Branch of our government. The argument is that the State Department makes the final recommendation to the president because it involves foreign nations and treaty obligations.  Perhaps.  Primarily, in my view, the president threatened a veto of an as yet unpassed bill in order mollify his supporters that have decided this pipeline is an affront to our national goals regarding the environment.

To this writer, the emotion surrounding the issue has taken over any modicum of common sense. Those that support the pipeline claim that it will rejuvenate the economy, create tens of thousands of new jobs, and support a renewed infrastructure.  Those that oppose it argue that it will be environmentally destructive and create Green House Gas (GHG) emissions of biblical proportions (well, maybe a slight exaggeration on my part).  As usual, the truth is somewhere else.

Both supporters and opponents point to the same impact study conducted by the State Department. The report, known as the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project  analyzes the “environment” in the largest sense — that is both the natural environment and the economic environment and the impacts the project probably will and will not have on the United States. (You can find the Executive Summary that contains the most pertinent facts here.)  Not surprisingly, supporters and opponents have cherry picked the facts that best support their argument.

In looking at some of the numbers bandied about, keep in mind that the Canadian shale oil deposits are already being used and that oil from them is already being transported to sites around North America. Not building the pipeline will not keep the Canadians from developing those sites.  There is also a fly in the ointment as I write this and that is the fact that the price of oil plummeted over the last few months. Good news for those of us at the gas pumps, but it may have an impact on the development of the oil shale deposits as estimates project that oil needs to be in the $65-$75 range in order to make a profit. However, such projects are not started and stopped in short order.  Currently experts do not believe that oil will stay at such low prices forever, and they are planning two to three years out when the price of oil is likely to be profitable again for these, and other similar deposits.

One of the most disputed facts thrown about is the number of jobs created with this project. Proponents argue that the State Department study says that 42,100 jobs will be created.  Opponents say that the study says that it will only be about 50 jobs.  They are both right.  The study says that while building the pipeline, 42,100 “direct, indirect and induced” jobs are created of which 3900 would be as a result of actual construction and last for about a year (or, the report says, half that number for two years, depending on how fast it gets built).  The 3900 would be “direct” jobs. The “indirect” are things such as the folks that manufacture the pipes for the line, or trucks to move dirt and the like.  The “induced” are things like restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses where people with money in their pockets from working on the line will spend their hard-earned cash. Note that they do not say that these will all be “new” jobs as is often argued.  The report actually says that there will be about 50 new jobs when construction finishes (45 permanent workers and 15 contractors). But for argument’s sake let’s use the 42,100 figure.  That equates to an increase of 0.02% to the annual economic activity of the country.  For one year.  Not exactly the savior of the economy it is made out to be.  For further comparison, there have been approximately 250,000 new jobs created each month for seven of the last nine months.  The Keystone pipeline is, at best, a drop in the bucket.

Likewise those predicting an environmental disaster use the State Department report to their advantage. But they also leave out some key data.  Remember, the oil is going to go to market. Regardless of U.S. environmental wishes, the Canadians are going to move that oil.  Currently, much of it goes by trucks and rail cars.  This is the “no action alternative” referred to in the report.  In other words, if the pipeline is not built.  According to the report, Green House Gas (GHG) emissions will increase by 28-42% if the pipeline is not built.  Likewise, it seems that moving the oil by pipe is safer to the community than having trucks and rail cars that are subject to accidents move it.  The report also addresses the possibility of oil spills via a leak in the pipeline, and while agreeing that it could have significant local effects, the overall chance of it is very small and the overall environmental impact would be small.  There is a lot of experience gained in building the tens of thousands of miles of current pipelines and the technology today is significantly enhanced.

To be clear, I think that our country must move to develop non-fossil fuel alternatives as quickly as possible.  I am not for pollution and I believe that we have significant work to do to clean up our environment, to which fossil fuels are a major contributor of pollution.  The reality, unfortunately, is that we are not there yet.  Perhaps some day, but not yet.  Building this pipeline will have little to no impact on cleaning up the environment as it will exist over the near future.  Likewise, building or not building this pipeline will have little impact on jobs in the economy.

Thus my point.  To me, this is indicative of the way the House and Senate operate today.  Little real progress occurs while litmus tests of purity on emotional issues take priority and pose as substantive measures supporting the “American people.”  The reality is that the arguments for and against the Keystone pipeline have little to do with the good of the country and a whole lot more to do with the well-being and financial gains of the members of political parties that take one side or the other and exploit it for their gain.

President Obama can move past this by announcing tomorrow that he has accepted the State Department’s report and approved the building of the pipeline.  No legislation necessary.  Maybe then we can move on to the issues confronting our country that have true bipartisan support such as tax reform and rebuilding our roads, bridges and other infrastructure that is the real lifeline of our economy.