Senate Approves Tougher Sanctions on Russia

The Senate voted 97-2 this afternoon in favor of tougher sanctions on Russia:

The sanctions legislation the Senate passed overwhelmingly Wednesday afternoon would represent a major power grab from the White House on U.S.-Russia policy….It would pave the way for Congress to wield far more control over the country’s fraught relationship with Russia….If it becomes law, the president would find it far more difficult to pursue the kinds of Russia sanctions relief that his team is said to have discussed with Russian officials before his inauguration. Those discussions, and potentially others, are what have gotten this White House in the hot water it’s in now.

I’m OK with this both on the merits (Russia deserves tougher sanctions) and as a matter of governance (Congress should assert itself instead of leaving foreign policy solely to the president).

But here’s the part I’ve never liked about congressional sanctions: they last forever until Congress lifts them, and political considerations make it very difficult to lift sanctions. I’d prefer to see them treated more like a criminal sentence, put in place for a specific amount of time.

In the case of Russia, for example, perhaps they’d be put in place for 2-4 years. For the first two years, the president has no discretion. For the next two years, the sanctions stay in place but the president has authority to reduce or eliminate them. After four years they’re lifted completely unless Congress affirmatively votes to renew them.

This would prevent sanctions from settling into an eternal ooze due to little more than inertia. It would also prevent the lifting of sanctions from becoming enormous public spectacles. They’d just quietly end at some point unless half the House and 60 percent of the Senate felt strongly enough that they needed to stay in place.