'There appear to be no rules anymore'
What Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu says about Washington's mess.
By David Rogers in Politico
Soon after becoming House Speaker in 2011, Republican John Boehner started running the traps on inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint meeting of Congress.
But when Barry Jackson, then Boehner’s chief-of-staff, checked with President Barack Obama’s top advisers, Jackson said he was left waiting a month only to get no response. Ultimately the Netanyahu speech went ahead in May but soon after Jackson faced the opposite problem: the White House had promised South Korea’s leadership an appearance before Congress, he said, without checking first with the speaker.
None of these slights justify what seems like payback now: Boehner’s decision to invite Netanyahu again, only this time without advising Obama or Democrats in Congress.
But the sequence of events does capture how much the normal courtesies between this White House and Congress have deteriorated — even in front of guests from another country.
“There appear to be no rules anymore. If you can do it, do it,” said Patrick Griffin, who recalls nothing quite like this even in the tempestuous times Griffin served as White House liaison between President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), herself a former speaker who oversaw similar joint meetings for foreign guests, said the management of the invitation was “inappropriate” and Boehner risks squandering his power in a fit of “hubris.”
But privately, Democrats admit too that this White House — as seen in the South Korea episode — is no innocent. And Jackson, who has served at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, said he is baffled that the administration should talk now about “protocol” after being so quick to exert its executive power to run over Congress.
“This is not the first time where they got cross-wise thinking the House was not an equal branch,” Jackson said. “When I heard about this, I shook my head.”
For sure, the American political family has always fought but the tradition used to be — not in front of company.
In the past 140 years, there have been 114 such joint meetings of Congress to hear speeches from guests, events that are typically arranged to be celebratory or to exhort the nation toward some common cause.
Lech Walesa of Poland and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela were two famous speakers for example. Britain’s Winston Churchill came three times, including two wartime appearances where he bonded with Congress as “a child” himself of the House of Commons.
Churchill’s 1941 appearance early in World War II was held in the Senate chamber not the House. Powerful lights were added and radio microphones. “The United States, united as never before, have drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard,” Churchill said to cheers.
General Douglas MacArthur’s famous farewell speech before Congress in April 1951 — days after being removed from his command by President Harry Truman — stands out for the divisions that surrounded it. But MacArthur was an American citizen, not a foreign head of state. Yes, the House Republican leader, Massachusetts Rep. Joe Martin, helped to drive the invitation as a way to attack Truman, but the joint meeting took the acquiescence of Speaker Sam Rayburn, a Texas Democrat.
When this record is compared with current events, two changes most stand out.
First that Boehner, who typically yields to presidents on matters of foreign policy, has reached such a level of frustration where he has taken this step. Second, the acrimony in Washington has become so infectious that the Israeli leadership feels free to capitalize on the situation and also cut Obama out of the loop.
Boehner’s office said the idea of inviting Netanyahu originated with the speaker — not the Israeli side. But the announcement capped “weeks” of talks, often through Netanyahu’s close advisor, Ron Dermer, who became Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 2013 and enjoys close ties with Republicans.
“The well-established protocol is that the leader of a foreign country would be in touch with the leader of this country about a possible visit. That didn’t occur,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “We did learn of this invitation shortly before it was announced. We were informed of the invitation by the Speaker’s office. So it was not the Israeli government that had contacted the administration.”
All this is happening at a time when Obama is at a crucial stage in what have been tense negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Boehner is said to be immensely frustrated with what he sees as the White House’s failure to keep him more apprised of its thinking. And by inviting Netanyahu, he has turned over the microphone to a prominent critic of the administration’s foreign policy in the Mideast.
To try to soften the edges, Netanyahu’s visit — first announced by Boehner for February 11 — has been pushed back to March 3. This moves it closer to the March 17 elections in Israel and at the beginning of a two-week period when free air time is allotted to the parties. It also allows the prime minister to say he is responding to what has been a long-standing invite from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the heavily Jewish, pro-Israel lobby which will be holding its annual meeting in Washington then as well.
But the closest parallel to the current situation may be the joint meeting that never happened in 1987, when an invitation was proposed, then dropped for Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the dissolution of the former Soviet Union.
Like today, the White House was in delicate arms-control talks in which the foreign guest had a stake in the outcome. Gorbachev was due in Washington for a December 1987 summit with President Ronald Reagan. And fresh from election victories in 1986, Democrats saw it as a chance to speed progress toward some resolution.
Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) had led a delegation to Moscow in the spring of 1987 where he had been allowed to give a televised speech. And Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) promoted the idea of Gorbachev – accompanied by Reagan himself — appearing before Congress.
Indeed, some inside the Reagan administration were intrigued by the invite — if it would lead to an opportunity for Reagan to address the Russian people. But conservative House Republicans — including the future Vice President Dick Cheney — were distrustful of Wright and strongly objected. And by mutual agreement the proposal was dropped to avoid what Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kans.) warned could be an “ugly scene” in Congress.
Of course, Netanyahu represents a strong American ally, not a former enemy like Gorbachev. But the bigger difference may be that leaders in Congress and the White House actually talked to one another back then vs. the silences today.
Reading all of Earnest’s public comments on the controversy this past week, it was more the lack of notice than consultation which rubbed raw. And as a general rule, the White House doesn’t want to be in a position of approving or vetoing the guests which Congress chooses.
Thomas Donilon, who was Obama’s national security advisor when Boehner first invited Netanyahu in 2011, recalls Jackson’s call to him but said he meant no slight by not taking a position on the visit. “The speaker’s office did notify us,” Donilon said. “I indicated it was their decision. I appreciated them checking with us but it was our view it was their decision … I don’t think we gave them a judgment one way or the other.”
In the case of South Korea, Donilon said he had no recollection of the White House promising in advance that Lee Myung-bak — who was then the country’s president — would have a chance to speak to Congress. But Jackson’s account is largely confirmed by Senate Democrats, who found themselves in the same box amid the scramble to complete trade pacts for not just South Korea but also Panama and Colombia in the fall of 2011.
Lee did get his chance, appearing before Congress in October 2011. But it followed frantic lobbying by allies of the South Korean government and the invite from Boehner was only announced a week before.
Have the two sides learned now they must talk more?
One postscript to the Netanyahu fracas last week suggests not. Obama did call Boehner later but that was only to thank Boehner for helping to move up the date of the State of the Union by a week to allow Obama keep to his planned visit to India.
By the speaker’s account, the controversial invite for the Israeli prime minister went unmentioned.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/john-boehner-benjamin-netanyahu-114554.html#ixzz3Pxuyf3Eb
1) I grew up inside the DC beltway and think I know how things use to be.
2) What do you expect with a bunch of amateurs in charge these days?
3) They may have a Country and their own agenda to run, but we have a life to live, too.
4) Now it has become bottom up, like the people will sort things out in the end. Said another way, the people are more and more in charge of many things. And being in charge is not so neat when it is pretty much about basic survival for Ourselves, our Families, and our Loved Ones. The time for any top down leadership, like from an elected Federal President and his appointed minions on down, is long gone it seems. Wise top down leadership seems especially gone.
5) If the people sort things out, it will usually be defensive, like to their advantage and not our Country’s advantage, or so is the forecast. That kind of forecast is not very favorable for the future of our Country and our World, either.
6) Now whether we have to “muddle through” or recover from some sort of “collapse” remains to be gone through if and when it might happen.
7) In the meantime, let us take care of ourselves and each other as best we can and in our own communities.
8) So if you want to do the chicken little approach, like the “sky is falling” have to. In the same vein, if hard times come, which to me means ¼ of our people are without work, then it is time to help them out as best we can. And for those who can’t or won’t help themselves, so be it. Can you say “soup kitchen”, for example.
9) Bottom up suggests a new National Political Party will form by 2020. The process has already started, too. And whatever this new Party is called, it will be formed of present Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, Americans all.
10) Most people want to work for themselves, their Family, and their Friends. Said another way, get out of their way.