After weeks of debate, Congress has finally approved its first sanctions against Russia, spurred by new reports of war crimes in Ukraine.
Lawmakers on Thursday passed two bills aimed at imposing harsh penalties on Russia and increasing aid to Ukraine. The legislation, the law suspending normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus and the law suspending energy imports from Russia, covers much the same ground as the sanctions already imposed by the White House, but underlines the degree of bipartisan support for such to punish.
These bills codify the Biden administration’s ban on Russian oil imports and repeal normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus. They also go beyond existing sanctions by re-authorizing the Magnitsky Act, which allows the US government to punish individuals for human rights violations.
In addition, the Senate on Wednesday passed legislation establishing a loan-lease agreement that would allow the US to lend weapons that Ukraine can pay for at a later date. However, the House has yet to consider this bill and will not consider it before a forthcoming recess.
Until this week, the sanctions legislation in the Senate was stalled amid Republican concerns.
Ultimately, lawmakers were pressured to get something done before leaving on Friday for a two-week recess, especially after reports of hundreds of civilian casualties and evidence of torture in Ukraine’s Bucha.
“If anyone has ever justified the withdrawal of normal trade relations, it is Vladimir Putin and the Russians for their behavior…
What Congressional Sanctions Would Do?
The Senate struggled to come together on a sanctions package, despite long-standing bipartisan interest in doing so, largely due to the concerns of two GOP senators, whose assent was needed to quickly move a vote forward.
In recent weeks, Republicans have held up a vote because they demanded specific changes. Two weeks ago, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took issue with the Magnitsky Act provisions that identified the human rights violations that could justify sanctions. He argued that the bill was too broad regarding what counted as a violation, and could lead Democrats to sanction people for actions such as blocking access to abortion.
“We just told them to define what a human rights violation is there,” Paul said at the time. “But we won’t let them pass unless they put it in, so they’re going to put it in or they’ll stay here for a week to do it.”
Meanwhile, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) had urged consideration of a loan-lease deal along with existing sanctions laws.
The problems of both legislators were eventually resolved. The language used in the Magnitsky Act provision has been changed to emphasize “gross” human rights violations rather than “serious” human rights violations. And Cornyn also got a vote on his loan-lease legislation.
Both chambers have now passed two sanctions laws, which include the following provisions:
- oil ban: The oil ban bans Russian imports of oil, natural gas and coal, confirming a move Biden took last month.
- Withdrawal of normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus: Biden had previously expressed support for the withdrawal of normal trade ties with Russia and Belarus, but needed congressional approval to fully implement it. Changing the trade status of these two countries will allow the US to impose higher tariffs on imported goods.
- Reauthorize the Magnitsky Law: The proposal would also re-approve the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to punish individuals and entities who have committed human rights violations by barring them from entering the country, freezing the assets of U.S. financial institutions and preventing Americans from doing business. enter into transactions with them.
Congress’ actions support what the government has done
Many of the actions of Congress support the moves Biden has already made.
Because of the broad authority given to the president under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) in 1977, the executive is able to enforce most sanctions alone, said Adam Smith, a sanctions attorney who previously worked on the matter. in the Obama administration.
“I can’t think of a single legal obligation given to an executive that they couldn’t have taken on themselves,” Smith told Vox.
However, by adopting sanctions, Congress is sending a signal that the US administration is united in its support of Ukraine and its focus on holding Russia accountable. In addition, it uses legislation to further empower the president while giving Congress some jurisdiction over when sentences can be lifted.
In the case of the severing of normal trade ties with Russia and Belarus, for example, Congress’ actions bolster Biden’s ability to impose more tariffs, showing that he has the support of members of both parties.
However, these bills could also make it more difficult to undo sanctions: When it comes to both bills, the president would have to submit certifications to Congress to lift the sanctions, a safeguard against the rollback of sanctions before Russia has completed its invasion. discontinued .