Enactment of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) Over the Presidential Veto

As a previous post reported, from September 16, 2015, through September 9, 2016, the current Session of Congress considered and overwhelmingly adopted the Justice Against Terrorism Act (JASTA). Although neither chamber of Congress held hearings on JASTA this Session and voiced little opposition to the bill, objections to the bill were raised outside Congress, and on September 23, 2016, President Obama vetoed the bill, as was mentioned in a prior post. Thereafter Congress overrode the veto and JASTA became law, whose details were discussed in another previous post.

Now we will retreat in time and examine the president’s veto message and the congressional overriding of the veto. Another post will look at subsequent efforts to amend JASTA.

President Obama’s Veto Message

 On September 23, President Obama vetoed JASTA and returned the bill to Congress with a message stating the following reasons for the veto:[1]

  • “Enacting JASTA into law . . . would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. As drafted, JASTA would allow private litigation against foreign governments in U.S. courts based on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad made them responsible for terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil. This legislation would permit litigation against countries that have neither been designated by the executive branch as state sponsors of terrorism nor taken direct actions in the United States to carry out an attack here. The JASTA would be detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly, which is why I am returning it without my approval.”
  • “First, JASTA threatens to reduce the effectiveness of our response to indications that a foreign government has taken steps outside our borders to provide support for terrorism, 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.”
  • “Any indication that a foreign government played a role in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is a matter of deep concern and merits a forceful, unified Federal Government response that considers the wide range of important and effective tools available. One of these tools is designating the foreign government in question as a state sponsor of terrorism, which carries with it a litany of repercussions, including the foreign government being stripped of its sovereign immunity before U.S. courts in certain terrorism-related cases and subjected to a range of sanctions. Given these serious consequences, state sponsor of terrorism designations are made only after national security, foreign policy, and intelligence professionals carefully review all available information to determine whether a country meets the criteria that the Congress established.”
  • “In contrast, JASTA departs from longstanding standards and practice under our Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and threatens to strip all foreign governments of immunity from judicial process in the United States based solely upon allegations by private litigants that a foreign government’s overseas conduct had some role or connection to a group or person that carried out a terrorist attack inside the United States. This would invite consequential decisions to be made based upon incomplete information and risk having different courts reaching different conclusions about the culpability of individual foreign governments and their role in terrorist activities directed against the United States — which is neither an effective nor a coordinated way for us to respond to indications that a foreign government might have been behind a terrorist attack.”
  • “Second, JASTA would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests. 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 U.S. Government assets from attempted seizure by private litigants abroad. Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.”
  • “Indeed, reciprocity plays a substantial role in foreign relations, and numerous other countries already have laws that allow for the adjustment of a foreign state’s immunities based on the treatment their governments receive in the courts of the other state. Enactment of JASTA could encourage foreign governments to act reciprocally and allow their domestic courts to exercise jurisdiction over the United States or U.S. officials — including our men and women in uniform — for allegedly causing injuries overseas via U.S. support to third parties. This could lead to suits against the United States or U.S. officials for actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training, even if the allegations at issue ultimately would be without merit. And if any of these litigants were to win judgments — based on foreign domestic laws as applied by foreign courts — they would begin to look to the assets of the U.S. Government held abroad to satisfy those judgments, with potentially serious financial consequences for the United States.”
  • “Third, JASTA threatens to create complications in our relationships with even our closest partners. If JASTA were enacted, courts could potentially consider even minimal allegations accusing U.S. allies or partners of complicity in a particular terrorist attack in the United States to be sufficient to open the door to litigation and wide-ranging discovery against a foreign country — for example, the country where an individual who later committed a terrorist act traveled from or became radicalized. A number of our allies and partners have already contacted us with serious concerns about the bill. By exposing these allies and partners to this sort of litigation in U.S. courts, JASTA threatens to limit their cooperation on key national security issues, including counterterrorism initiatives, at a crucial time when we are trying to build coalitions, not create divisions.”
  • “The 9/11 attacks were the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, and they were met with an unprecedented U.S. Government response. The United States has taken robust and wide-ranging actions to provide justice for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and keep Americans safe, from providing financial compensation for victims and their families to conducting worldwide counterterrorism programs to bringing criminal charges against culpable individuals. I have continued and expanded upon these efforts, both to help victims of terrorism gain justice for the loss and suffering of their loved ones and to protect the United States from future attacks. The JASTA, however, does not contribute to these goals, does not enhance the safety of Americans from terrorist attacks, and undermines core U.S. interests.”

Reactions to the Veto

Immediately after President Obama’s veto of JASTA, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress vowed to override the veto under Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution requiring a vote of at least two-thirds of each chamber of the Congress to do so. On the sidelines both major presidential candidates (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) said that they would have signed the bill if they were president.

These vows were made despite the prior day’s testimony before a Senate committee by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opposing the bill on the ground that it could be a problem for the U.S. if another country was “to behave reciprocally towards the U.S.” And the Republican Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, amplified the military’s concerns and urged Republicans to study the bill’s consequences while announcing his intent to opposes the override.[2]

Not surprisingly immediately after this veto, Senator John Cornyn stated, “It’s disappointing the President chose to veto legislation unanimously passed by Congress and overwhelmingly supported by the American people. Even more disappointing is the President’s refusal to listen to the families of the victims taken from us on September 11th, who should have the chance to hold those behind the deadliest terrorist attack in American history accountable. I look forward to the opportunity for Congress to override the President’s veto, provide these families with the chance to seek the justice they deserve, and send a clear message that we will not tolerate those who finance terrorism in the United States.”[3]

On September 27 President Obama sent a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell (Rep., TN), the Majority Leader, and Harry Reid (Dem. NV), Minority Leader. The President said he was “fully committed to assisting the families of the victims of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,″ but that the consequences of an override could be “devastating” by putting military and other U.S. officials overseas at risk. The bill’s enactment, he warned, “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.[4]

On September 28 Senators Cornyn and Shumer jointly wrote an op-ed article in USA Today urging Congress to override the veto because JASTA “would provide a legal avenue for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to seek justice in a court of law for the terrorist attacks that took the lives of their loved ones. And it would deter foreign entities from sponsoring terrorism in the future.” The article also rejected as untrue the argument by JASTA’s opponents “that the bill will subject U.S. diplomats and other government officials to a raft of potential lawsuits in foreign courts.”[5]

On the morning of September 28, the New York Times published an editorial opposing the threatened congressional override of the veto because “the bill complicates the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and could expose the American government, citizens and corporations to lawsuits abroad. Moreover, legal experts like Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law and Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School doubt that the legislation would actually achieve its goal.”[6]

Moreover, the Times editorial asserted that the “European Union has warned that if the bill becomes law, other countries could adopt similar legislation defining their own exemptions to sovereign immunity. Because no country is more engaged in the world than the United States — with military bases, drone operations, intelligence missions and training programs — the Obama administration fears that Americans could be subject to legal actions abroad.”

Nevertheless, later that same day (September 28) Congress overwhelmingly voted to override the presidential veto. The only vote against the override in the Senate was by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Harry Reid (Dem., NV). The vote in the House was 348 to override with only 59 opposed.[7] We will now look at the debate in both chambers.

U.S. Senate’s Overriding the Veto

In the Senate debate, Senators Richard Blumenthal (Dem., CT), John Cornyn (Rep., TX), Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA) and Chuck Schumer (Dem. NY) spoke in favor of overriding the veto and passing JASTA while Senators Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), the Committee’s Ranking Member, and Diane Feinstein (Dem., CA) offered qualified endorsements of an override. [8]

Generally these Senators argued that U.S. victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism needed the opportunity to assert their damage claims in U.S. courts against such sponsors and that JASTA would deter such sponsored terrorism. Senator Cornyn added that this “legislation has been pending since 2009, and we have worked through a number of Members’ concerns . . . in order to modify the legislation and build the consensus we now have achieved. . . . That means [JASTA] has been negotiated and hammered out over a long period of time.”[9]

Cornyn then offered this argument for rejection of the presidential veto message:

  • JASTA would not “create complications” with some of our close partners. It “only targets foreign governments that sponsor terrorist attacks on American soil. . . . The financing of terrorism in the [U.S.] is not behavior we should tolerate from any nation, allies included.”
  • Possible foreign laws like JASTA “applied reciprocally will open no . . . floodgates” of lawsuits against the U.S. or military members by foreign governments in foreign courts.
  • “JASTA is not a sweeping legislative overhaul that dramatically alters international law. It is an extension of law that has been on the [U.S.] books since 1976. . . . [For] 40 years our law has been replete with immunity exceptions that apply to conduct committed abroad. This bill just adds another exception.”

Senator Grassley, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that this Committee unanimously supported overriding the veto of JASTA. He also said it was “highly unlikely” that passage of the bill would result in “the Saudis . . .pulling their money out of U.S. securities. . . . But even if they did, there would be plenty of buyers for those securities. But more importantly, . . . [such an argument would send the message;] if you want to influence U.S. legislation, make sure to buy up U.S. debt, and then threaten to sell that debt any time the U.S. Congress does something you don’t like. We absolutely cannot be intimidated or bend to that type of threat.”

Senator Corker commented that he had “tremendous concerns about the sovereign immunity procedures that could be set in place by other countries as a result of this vote” and that it could have adverse consequences for the U.S. “standing in the world.” He was troubled by “the concerns [of] . . . the head of our Joint Chiefs” and of the President. He also thought it would be better “to establish some type of tribunal, where experts could come in and really identify what actually happened on discretionary decisions that took place within the country of Saudi Arabia” with respect to the pending 9/11 claims.

As a result, Senator Corker prepared a bipartisan letter to the Senate sponsors of JASTA (Senators Cornyn and Schumer).[10] It expressed concern about “potential unintended consequences that may result from . . . [JASTA] for the national security and foreign policy of the United States. If other nations respond to this bill by weakening U.S. sovereign immunity protections, then the [U.S.] could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military or intelligence activities. We would hope to work with you in a constructive manner to appropriately mitigate those unintended consequences.”

One of the signers of this letter and the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), recognized “that there are risk factors in terms of how other countries may respond to the enactment of JASTA. [11] As a nation with hundreds of thousands of troops that serve abroad, not to mention multiple foreign bases and facilities, the United States of America is a country that benefits from sovereign immunity principles that protect our country and our country’s interests, its Armed Forces, government officials, and litigation in foreign courts. Therefore, there is a concern of unintended consequences, including irresponsible applications to U.S. international activities by other countries. While I have faith and confidence in the American legal system, the same faith does not necessarily extend to the fairness of legal systems of other countries that may claim they are taking similar actions against America when they are not. So [as the Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I will] follow closely how other countries respond and try to mitigate the risks of the [U.S.] abroad” and will “explore with my colleagues the possibility of whether we need or will need additional legislative action.”

Another signer of the letter, Senator Feinstein, expressed her “key concern relates to the exception to the immunity of foreign governments.”[12] “Proponents of this bill argue that the exception is narrow, that it applies only if a foreign nation, with ill intent, takes unlawful actions that cause an act of terrorism on our soil. But other nations that are strongly opposed to American actions abroad could respond by using the bill as an excuse to adopt laws that target our own government’s actions. A September 15 Washington Post editorial said it well: ‘It is not a far-fetched concern, given this country’s global use of intelligence agents, Special Operations forces and drones, all of which could be construed as state-sponsored `terrorism’ when convenient.’ Those of us on the Senate Intelligence Committee know that, if other countries respond to JASTA in this manner, it could jeopardize our government’s actions abroad. If that happens, it is likely that our government would be forced to defend against private lawsuits, which could pose a threat to our national security.” Therefore, she was interested in limiting JASTA to “the September 11 attacks” and to “those directly impacted by an attack–including individuals, their estates and property damage, rather than companies with only tangential connections.”

U.S. House of Representatives’ Overriding the Veto 

On the afternoon of September 28 the House voted to override the veto of JASTA by a vote of 348 (225 Republicans and 123 Democrats) to 77 (18 Republicans and 59 Democrats).[13]

The supporters of override were led by Representative Robert Goodlatte (Rep., VA), the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who asserted, “The changes JASTA makes to existing law are not dramatic, nor are they sweeping.. . .The President’s objections . . . have no basis under U.S. or international law.. . . Consistent with customary international law, JASTA, for terrorism cases, removes the current requirement that the entire tort occur within the United States and replaces it with a rule that only the physical injury or death must occur on U.S. soil.” Later in the debate he claimed (erroneously as explained in n.14) that his argument was supported by “Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Properties [which] would apply the territorial tort exception if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of the state exercising jurisdiction.”[14]

Others who supported the override and who spoke during the debate were Representatives Peter King (Rep., NY), Sheila Jackson Lee (Dem., TX), Leonard Lance (Rep., NJ), David Donovan (Rep., NY), Carolyn Maloney (Dem., NY) and Jerrold Nadler (Dem. FL).

Leading the opposition to the override were Representative M. “Mac” Thornberry (Rep., TX), the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI). Other opponents of override who spoke during the debate were Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (Dem., TX), David Jolly (Rep., FL), Betty McCollum (Dem., MN), Robert Scott (Dem., VA) and Earl Blumenauer (Dem., NY).

Thornberry expressed concern for the possible erosion of sovereign immunity, which is “one of the key protections that the military, diplomats, and intelligence community of the [U.S.] has around the world. Once that doctrine gets eroded, then there is less protection, and . . . the [U.S.], has more at stake in having our people protected than any other country because we have more people around the world than anyone else.” Thornberry also quoted from a letter to him from Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., General, U.S. Marine Corps. and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: `Any legislation that risks reciprocal treatment by foreign governments would increase the vulnerability of U.S. Service members to foreign legal action while acting in an official capacity.” This letter and a letter urging defeat of the override from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter were inserted into the House record.

Conyers supported the President’s reasons for his veto. “First, the President stated that [the bill] could undermine the effectiveness of our Nation’s national security and counterterrorism efforts. For instance, other nations may become more reluctant to share sensitive intelligence in light of the greater risk that such information may be revealed in litigation.   Moreover, the President raised the concern that this legislation would effectively allow non-expert private litigants and courts, rather than national security and foreign policy experts, to determine key foreign and national security policy questions like which states are sponsors of terrorism.   Second, the President’s assertion that enactment of[the bill]may lead to retaliation by other countries against the [U.S.] given the breadth of our interests and the expansive reach of our global activities.   So while it seems likely at this juncture that [the bill] will be enacted over the President’s veto, I remain hopeful that we can continue to work toward the enactment of subsequent legislation to address the President’s concerns.”

Conyers also cited others who called for sustaining the President’s veto: Michael Mukasey, the former Attorney General under George W. Bush; Stephen Hadley, the former National Security Adviser for that President; Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; and Thomas Pickering, the former [U.S.] Ambassador to the United Nations.

Representative Scott said, “JASTA abrogates a core principle in international law–foreign sovereign immunity. There are already several exceptions to this immunity recognized by our Nation and others, but JASTA goes much further than any present exception or recognized practice of any national law…. One fundamental indication of fairness of legislation is not how it would work to our benefit, but what we would think if it were used against us. If the [U.S.] decides to allow our citizens to haul foreign nations into American courts, what would we think of other nations enacting legislation allowing their citizens to do the same thing to us? Obviously, we would not want to put our diplomats, military, and private companies at that risk.”

Scott also pointed out that “JASTA does not make clear how the evidence would be gathered to help build a credible case against a foreign nation. Would the plaintiffs be able to subpoena foreign officials? Or would the U.S. Department of State officials have to testify? Would . . . [the U.S.] be required to expose sensitive materials in order to help American citizens prove their case? Again, how would we feel about foreign judges and juries deciding whether or not the [U.S.] sponsored terrorism? There are also questions about how the judgment under JASTA would be enforced. The legislation does not address how a court would enforce the judgment. Could foreign assets be attached? How would this process work if other countries enacted similar legislation? Would U.S. assets all over the world be subject to attachment to satisfy the foreign jury verdicts?”

Jolly emphasized that “the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA Director, and the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee [Representative Thornberry] have all issued statements against this legislation.”

White House Reaction to the Overriding of the Veto

On the same day as this Senate vote and before the House voted on the same bill later that day, White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, said, “I would venture to say that this is the single-most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983. You had at least one prominent Republican senator quoted today saying that . . . the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were not quite sure what the bill actually did.  And to have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our service members and our diplomats is, in itself, embarrassing.  For those senators then to move forward in overriding the President’s veto that would prevent those negative consequences is an abdication of their basic responsibilities as elected representatives of the American people.”[15]

Furthermore, said the Press Secretary, “these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today.  You’ve got to give some credit to Harry Reid.  He showed some courage.  The same can’t be said for the other 96 members of the Senate who voted today.”

The same day President Obama on CNN said that a few lawmakers who backed the bill weren’t aware of its potential impact and that he wished Congress “had done what’s hard.” CIA Director John Brennan said he was concerned about how Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, would interpret the bill. He said the Saudis provide significant amounts of information to the U.S. to help foil extremist plots. “It would be an absolute shame if this legislation, in any way, influenced the Saudi willingness to continue to be among our best counterterrorism partners,” Brennan said.[16]

On September 29, after the House had voted and JASTA became law, Press Secretary Earnest added, “I think what we’ve seen in the United States Congress is a pretty classic case of rapid-onset buyer’s remorse.  Within minutes of casting their vote to put that bill into law, you had members of the United States Senate — some 28 of them — write a letter expressing deep concern about the potential impact of the bill they just passed.  The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting for, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill. That’s a hard suggestion to take seriously when you had letters from President Bush’s attorney general and national security advisor warning about the consequences of the bill.  You had attorneys from our closest allies in Europe expressing their concerns about the impact of the bill.  You had a letter from some of America’s business leaders, including Chief Executive of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, warning about the potential economic consequences of the bill.  You had letters from the Director of the CIA, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief all warning about the potential impact of the bill.”[17]

Conclusion

As indicated above, certain Senators indicated their intent to pursue amendments to JASTA to remedy what they see as problems with the statute. This will be the subject of future posts.

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[1] White House, Veto Message from the President—S.2040 (Sept. 23, 2016) Afterwards Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, discussed whether there was congressional opposition to overriding the veto and criticism of the bill from Saudi Arabia and “a lot of other countries, including the European Union. White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/26/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/27/16.

[2] Assoc. Press, Lawmakers Vow to Override Obama’s Veto of Sept. 11 bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2016).

[3] Cornyn, Cornyn Statement on President’s Veto of JASTA (Sept. 23, 2016).

[4] Demirjian & Ellperin, Congress overrides Obama’s veto of 9/11 bill, Wash, Post (Sept, 28, 2016).

[5] Cornyn, Cornyn Op-Ed: give 9/11 Families a Legal Avenue (Sept. 28, 2016).

[6] Editorial, The Risks of Sueing the Saudis for 9/11, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016)

[7] Steinhauer, Mazzetti & Davis, Congress Votes to Override Obama Veto on 9/11 Victims Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Eilpirin & Demirjian, Congress thwarts Obama on bill allowing 9/11 lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, Wash. Post (Sept. 28, 2016).

[8] Cong. Rec. S6166-73 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[9] The prior post about the initial passage of JASTA started with the 2015 introduction of the bill and did not attempt to cover earlier versions of the bill or the process referenced by Senator Cornyn. Comments about this earlier process would be much appreciated.

[10] This bipartisan letter was signed by 15 Democrat Senators (Bennet, Cardin, Carper, Coons, Feinstein, Heitkamp, Hirono, McCaskill, Merkley, Nelson, Reed, Schatz, Shaheen, Udall and Warner), 12 Republican Senators (Alexander, Coats, Corker, Cotton, Flake, Graham, McCain, Risch, Roberts, Rounds, Sullivan and Thune) and Independent Senator King.

[11] Cardin, Cardin Statement on JASTA Veto Vote (Sept. 28, 2016).

[12] Feinstein, Feinstein Statement on Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Sept. 28, 2016).

[13] Cong. Record H6023-32 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[14] The United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Property is certainly relevant to the issue of international law on the subject. Representative Thornberry, however, failed to quote the entirety of Article 12 of this treaty and thereby reached an erroneous conclusion that it supports JASTA. That Article states, “Unless otherwise agreed between the States concerned, a State cannot invoke immunity from jurisdiction before a court of another State which is otherwise competent in a proceeding which relates to pecuniary compensation for death or injury to the person, or damage to or loss of tangible property, caused by an act or omission which is alleged to be attributable to the State, if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of that other State and if the author of the act or omission was present in that territory at the time of the act or omission.” The portion in bold was not quoted by Thornberry.  Moreover, this treaty is not yet in force because its Article 30 requires 30 states to become parties thereto, and to date only 21 states have done so, and the U.S. has neither signed nor ratified this treaty.

[15] White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Fort Lee, Virginia 9/28/16.

[16] Assoc. Press, Congress Rebukes Obama, Overrides Veto of 9/11 Legislation, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Reuters, Congress Rejects Obama Veto, Saudi Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Sept, 28, 2016).

[17] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of Education King (Sept. 29, 2016).

 

Two Major U.S. Groups Urge Congress To Promote U.S. Trade and Travel with Cuba

This month two major U.S. groups have reiterated pleas to Congress to promote U.S. trade and travel with Cuba. They are the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba and Engage Cuba. Here is a report on those efforts.

U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba

On June 8, 2015, the Agricultural Coalition, an association of more than 90 U.S. agricultural companies and state and national organizations committed to normalizing exports of food and agricultural products to Cuba, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations.[1]

The letter reiterated the Coalition’s opposition “to any effort to restrict trade and travel with the nation of Cuba—including possible amendments to appropriations bills or the State Department reauthorization bill.” Any such restriction “would be detrimental to the U.S. agricultural industry and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.”[2]

Indeed, the letter continued, Coalition members “share a commitment to liberalizing trade between the United States and Cuba.  We support Congressional action to expand opportunities for U.S. agriculture by normalizing commercial relations with Cuba and, ultimately, ending the Cuban embargo.”

Because of existing restrictions in U.S. law about trade with Cuba, the letter further stated, the U.S. agriculture “industry is losing out on valuable opportunities to market U.S. food and agriculture products in Cuba. U.S. farmers, ranchers, and food businesses should not be losing out to other countries like Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Vietnam, and countries in the European Union.  Cuba is a logical export market for the U.S. industry.”

Engage Cuba

On June 16, 2105, Engage Cuba formally commenced its operations in Washington, D.C. as a coalition of major corporations, business associations and non-profit groups. Its members include the National Foreign Trade Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Council of the Americas, the American Society of Travel Agents, Third Way, #CubaNow, the Cuba Study Group and the Center for Democracy in the Americas. It also works directly with many leading businesses, including Procter & Gamble, Cargill, Caterpillar, Choice Hotels and The Havana Group,[3]

This coalition on June 16 started an ad campaign called “Guess What?” that is being broadcast on Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC. It calls for ending travel and trade bans on Cuba.[4]

The Engage Cuba press releases stated the various provisions that seek to halt reconciliation with Cuba that House Republicans had inserted into pending appropriations bills. He said they were “like the last gasps of a defeated army that’s in retreat. They are just trying to delay the inevitable. The Senate will not support those versions of the bill[s] and the White House already has said they would [veto them]. So they [have a] zero chance of becoming law.”

This theme about pending legislation was expanded in a June 16 article by Williams and two other Engage Cuba leaders (Steven Law and Luke Albee).[5] They said, “While there are plenty of big fights still to be had, bipartisan progress is clearly emerging on an unlikely issue: Cuba policy.” As “examples of seeking compromise and working across party lines,” they cited the bill to end the ban on U.S. travel (S.299) offered by Republican Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) and the recent bill to end the embargo (S.1543) offered by Republican Senator Jerry Moran (KS) and Independent Senator Angus King (ME).

Engage Cuba, they said, “reflects that same bipartisan spirit. The founder of the group (James Williams) is a public policy adviser to philanthropists with strong ties to the Obama Administration. Its top two advisers come from opposite sides of the political barricades: Steven Law runs American Crossroads and Luke Albee is a well-known Democrat who served more than two decades in Congress as Chief of Staff to Sens. Leahy and Warner (Dem.,VA).”

This article concluded with an urgent call for that bipartisan spirit and effort to combat “provisions . . . [to House of Representatives’] funding bills to try to roll Cuba policy back to a Cold War posture, even as embassies are in the process of being announced. The bills immediately drew veto threats, and it’s clear they have little chance of getting through the Senate with those measures. However, progress isn’t going to be made by fighting rear-guard actions; we need to move our policy toward Cuba in a new, positive direction.”

On January 15, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) hosted a party at a Washington, D.C. bar to celebrate the launching of Engage Cuba. People from that coalition were joined by other senators; Roberta S. Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the U.S.’ chief negotiator in the Cuba talks; and José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, Cuba’s ambassador-in-waiting as chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

Flake,  Rodriguez, collin and Roberts
Rodriguez, Flake, Collins and Roberts

Senator Flake had just returned from another trip to Cuba, this time with Senators Susan Collins (Rep., ME) and Pat Roberts (Rep., KS). Here is a photo ot the three of them with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Afterwards, on June 15 Flake said, “To see where we are today is really heartening. The feeling I had the last couple of visits to Cuba is that the reforms . . . that have been made are irreversible. It’s full steam ahead.”[6]

Conclusion

All supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should thank both of these organizations for their efforts to do the same while also urging their Senators and Representatives to oppose the House Republican rear-guard efforts.

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[1] This Agricultural Coalition letter was the subject of an article in Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, Granma: U.S. agricultural coalition opposes trade and travel restrictions against Cuba. Granma (June 15, 2015) Prior posts discussed the Coalition’s January 2015 launching and its March 2015 trip to Cuba.

[2]  Pending policy bills against reconciliation and the anti-reconciliation inserts in appropriations bills have been discussed in posts on May 26 and 28 and June 2, 10, 12 and 16.

[3] Torres, Major U.S. companies support new group that will lobby to lift sanctions against Cuba, Miami Herald (June 16, 2015). A prior post discussed the organization of Engage Cuba. Engage Cuba already helped helping negotiate an agreement between the Florida-based Stonegate Bank and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to resume bank transactions for the Cuban diplomatic mission, an essential requirement for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the conversion of the Section to the Cuban Embassy. The group’s website has a useful page of Facts about public opinion on reconciliation in the U.S. and in Cuba, the potential Cuban market for U.S. products and services, statements of prominent individuals supporting reconciliation and lists of reconciliation-supportive businesses, agricultural organizations, faith-based and religious organizations, human rights, development and policy organizations, and labor, environmental and travel organizations. Another useful feature of the website is a form for individuals to send an email to their members of Congress.

[4] The TV ad itself is available online, and the ad is a subject of a press release from the group.

[5] Williams, Law & Albee, On Cuba, a bipartisan path emerges, The Hill (June 16, 2015).

[6] Calmes, New Group Enjoys Thaw in U.S.-Cuba Relations with a Party, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2015)

Another U.S. Coalition for U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Engage Cuba, another U.S. coalition supporting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, is to be officially launched on June 15th.[1]

This new nonprofit advocacy group will lobby Congress to repeal the ban against doing business in or traveling to the island nation. Its goal is to create an “umbrella organization”, bringing together people from different sectors, which have different approaches and perspectives, but agree upon this reconciliation. One of its financial backers is the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents major corporations and lobbies for expansion of U.S. international trade and which has its own broader coalition (USA*Engage) against U.S. unilateral trade sanctions, including those against Cuba.

The president of Engage Cuba, James Williams, has said, “There is a broad consensus emerging from business, agriculture, policy experts, and civil society generally that Congress must end antiquated trade and travel restrictions on Americans that stand in the way of more meaningful engagement with the Cuban people.” Moreover, he has said, the Republican Party now controlling both houses of Congress has no reason to oppose this change, not even out of principle: “Republicans believe in the power of the free market and in speaking out in support of America’s values anywhere and everywhere.”

An example of such Republican support was a January 2015 joint letter to President Obama from seven prominent Republican Senators (Jeff Flake (AZ), Rand Paul (KY), Jerry Moran (KS), Pat Roberts (KS), Mike Enzi (WY), John Boozman (AR) and Susan Collins (ME). They said, “With the significance of your recent announcements related to Cuba, we look forward to Congress turning its attention toward modernizing U.S.-Cuba policy to the benefit of U.S. citizens and the Cuban people alike. Congress must play an integral role in reforming our policy toward Cuba.”

Engage Cuba’s participants include several prominent Republicans. A top advisor is Steven Law, former Deputy Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush Administration and current president of the American Crossroads super PAC, which backs Republican candidates and causes. Kristen Chadwick, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for Legislative Affairs, will manage much of the lobbying in the House of Representatives. Billy Piper, a former top aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, will manage the Senate lobbying.

The group also has the involvement of Democratic supporters. Luke Albee worked as an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), a strong supporter of the policy change towards Cuba. Luis Miranda, the former White House director of Hispanic media and an aide to President Obama, helped conceive of the group.

An earlier coalition with a similar purpose is the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba that was launched in January of this year and that in early March organized a large delegation’s visit to Cuba.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Tau, Top GOP, Democratic Consultants to Push Congress to End Cuba Embargo, W.S.J. (April 16, 2015); Ortiz, Engage Cuba Advocates Normal U.S.-Cuba Relations, OnCuba (April 27, 2015); Gomez, A coalition against the blockade in the corner of the white house, Granma (May 20, 2015) (Google translation). The group’s website does not yet have any substantive content.

 

 

 

 

 

Senate Hearing on Expanding U.S. Agricultural Trade with Cuba

On April 21st the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a hearing, “Opportunities and Challenges for Agriculture Trade with Cuba.”[1]

 Chairman’s Opening Statement

Senator Pat Roberts
Senator Pat Roberts

The Committee Chair, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (Rep., KS), opened the hearing by stating, “At the beginning of this Congress, I was hopeful that trade would be one area where we could work across the aisle to find agreement. I am still hopeful that is the case. . . . International trade of American agriculture products is critical…critical to the nation’s economy and critical to our Kansas farmers and ranchers. I have long fought to eliminate barriers to trade, and I believe that we should continue to work towards new market access opportunities for our agriculture products.”

“The United States and Cuba have a long history full of contention and instability. There is no shortage of opinion from members of Congress about the relationship between our two countries, both present and future. Some are concerned about human rights, others about socioeconomic ideology. But those concerns are not what this committee will focus on this morning. Today we are here to discuss the role of agriculture – opportunities and challenges – in Cuba.”

“This is not an issue that we are going to be able to fix overnight. It will take efforts in addition to bills in Congress to truly normalize trade with Cuba. The decisions that are made regarding increased trade with Cuba must be made carefully.”

“Four months ago the President announced a major shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba. It is my hope that in the future, the President will work with Congress to determine the best path forward. Foreign policy does not happen in a vacuum. We have to take a realistic approach and work out a step-by-step plan towards lifting the embargo. This is a goal that should include Congress.”

“Today we will hear from an impressive panel of experts, from the regulators responsible for writing our policies toward Cuba, to the producers who seek to grow the market for their products. I understand that, like myself, many of our witnesses here have traveled to Cuba to see first-hand what challenges and opportunities exist.”

“Agriculture has long been used as a tool – not a weapon – for peace and stability. It is my hope that Cuba will embrace the practices of free trade, enterprise and commerce, so that both countries will gain from increased relations.”

“Earlier this year, the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba was launched. They have shared a statement and additional information in support of our work today, [which was] entered into the record.”

Ranking Member’s Opening Statement

Senator Debbie Stabenow
Senator Debbie Stabenow

Senator Debbie Stabenow (Dem., MI), the Ranking Committee Member, said, “Improving trade with Cuba represents not only a great opportunity for America’s farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers, but a meaningful way to help rebuild trust between our nations.  After more than 50 years of stalemate, it’s time for a new policy on Cuba.”

“When I visited Cuba earlier this year – just days after President eased some trade restrictions – I saw firsthand the eagerness of Cubans who want to develop a more effective relationship with the [U.S.] But we can only get there if we begin to take meaningful steps to soften many of the barriers that exist between us.”

“And America’s farmers and ranchers are uniquely positioned to lead the way. Consider this – in 2014, the U.S. exported just over $290 million in agricultural goods to Cuba. That’s a good start, but for a country only 90 miles off our coast, we can do much more. Cuba’s own import agency estimates that it will receive approximately $2.2 billion (in U.S. dollars) worth of food and agricultural products this year alone.”

“That type of economic potential deserves a chance to succeed – and is one reason why many of the largest producer groups, trade associations, and companies from within agriculture have come together to push for increased engagement.”

“Many on this Committee have pushed for increased engagement and have taken the opportunity to visit Cuba in recent months. I’d like to recognize Senators Leahy and Klobuchar, as well as Senator Boozman and Heitkamp, for their bipartisan leadership on this issue.”

“The commitment to democratic ideas and human rights we share as Americans are best realized through engagement. Our bedrock principles accompany every product farmers and ranchers send to Cuba.”

“Last week’s action by the President [in rescinding the designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”] is a step forward toward in normalizing our relationship and will test the commitment of the Cuban government to this process.”

“But even while we are making significant progress in rebuilding our relationship with Cuba – the policies governing trade between our countries are not yet designed to allow a steady flow of goods and services. We must find a path forward that allows U.S. financial institutions to safely and securely work with Cuban purchasers, including the extension of lines of credit. And we should work to authorize a greater range of goods, services, and supplies for export to Cuba. These measures not only make good business sense – they also will help build Cuba’s agricultural capacity and make the island a better trading partner in the long run.”

The Witnesses at the Hearing

 The witnesses at the hearing were the following: (1) The Honorable Michael T. Scuse, Under Secretary, Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture; (2) Mr. Matthew Borman, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Industry and Security, U.S. Department of Commerce; (3) Mr. John Smith, Acting Director, Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of the Treasury; (4) Mr. Michael V. Beall, President & CEO, National Cooperative Business Association; (5) Mr. Terry Harris, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Risk Management, Riceland Foods; (6) Mr. Ralph Kaehler, Farmer and Owner, K-LER Cattle Company, St. Charles , MN; (7) Mr. Doug Keesling, Fifth Generation Owner, Keesling Farms, Kansas Wheat, Chase , KS; and (8) Dr. C. Parr Rosson III, Professor & Department Head, Department of Agriculture Economics, Texas A&M University.

 Witness Ralph Kaehler

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is a member of the Committee and the author of the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act (S.491) ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba, introduced Ralph Kaehler, whose family has been operating a livestock, row crop, and canning vegetable farm in Minnesota for nearly 130 years.

The Senator prefaced her introduction with this statement: “For too long, export and travel restrictions have prevented American farmers and ranchers from seeking opportunities in Cuba. That is why I have introduced bipartisan legislation to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, and this hearing allowed us to focus on how we can ensure that our farmers and ranchers benefit from normalized relations between our two countries.”

Mr. Kaehler testified that his farm was “an exhibitor in the First U.S./Cuba Food and Agriculture Exposition [in Havana] in 2002.” It “was the only one with live animals— affectionately known as the ‘Cuban Ark’ . . . to exhibit the diversity of U.S. livestock producers, and to introduce Cuba to the typical USA farm family.”

“Since then, the Kaehler Family has led over 10 trade delegations to Cuba. These missions have included producers from seven different states and a bipartisan mix of state lawmakers and officials. To date, some of the most successful exports to Cuba we have facilitated include shipments of livestock, dried distillers grains, powdered milk, animal milk replacer, and texturized calf feed.”

“Given the opportunity, U.S. farmers do well in Cuba. We have a significant advantage of shorter shipping over Europe, South America, Asia, and other major exporters. In addition, Cuba can take advantage of U.S. rail container service and sizing options, which also brings significant benefits to smaller privately owned businesses like ours. On top of all this, the U.S. produces a wide variety of affordable and safe food products that Cubans want to eat.”

“Unfortunately, some of the policies currently in place diminish the natural advantages American agriculture enjoys over its competitors. For instance, requirements for using third country banks for financing adds a lot of paperwork, time, and personalities to every transaction. Coupled with a restrictive cash‐in advance shipping policy . . . there is a very small margin for error before a shipper faces demurrage fees. As a family operation trying to build our business through exports, this self‐inflicted inefficiency can be tough to manage.”

Mr. Kaehler then made three specific recommendations to Congress. “First, . . . improve the trade financing rules for Cuba. . . . Second, . . . small firms like ours . . . need marketing support and assistance [from USDA] to help support our companies and figure out exactly what’s going on in markets abroad. . . . [Third,] I hope that Congress will expand the universe of people involved in U.S.‐Cuba trade by allowing a greater variety of goods and services to be traded.”

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[1] A quick examination of the official websites of the Committee’s 20 members reveals that seven have made statements favoring at least some aspects of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation (Boozman (Rep., AK), Brown (Dem., OH), Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Hoeven (Rep., ND), Klobuchar (Dem., MN), Leahy (Dem., VT) and Stabenow (Dem., MI)). Only two have negative statements about that reconciliation (Grassley (Rep., IA) and Perdue (Rep., GA)). The other eleven members‘ websites do not reveal any position on Cuba (Bennet (Dem., CO), Casey (Dem., PA), Cochran (Rep., MS), Donnelly (Dem., IN), Ernst (Rep., IA), Gillibrand (Dem., NY), McConnell (Rep., KY), Roberts (Rep., KS), Sasse (Rep., NE), Thune (Rep., SD) and Tillis (Rep., NC)). A more thorough examination of the records of the last 11 would probably uncover other indications of their positions on reconciliation with Cuba.