Zirpoli: Congress shows lack of courage in passing irresponsible bill

If you want to see an example of a small lobbying group intimidating Democrats and Republicans prior to an election, just look at the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act that sailed through Congress, and then again after the bill was vetoed by President Barack Obama.

The JASTA Act allows American citizens affected by the 9/11 attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for damages based upon the Saudi's alleged involvement in the attacks.


Never mind that there is little evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The fact that 15 out of the 19 attackers were from Saudi Arabia, however, seems to be enough evidence for conspiracy theorists. In fact, congressional and independent investigations have not found evidence that the Saudi government supported the attacks or knew about them beforehand.

Stating that the Saudi government is indirectly responsible for the actions of the men who carried out the 9/11 attacks is like saying that the NRA is responsible for the 11,000 gun-related deaths in the United States each year. After all, the NRA promotes the sale of the guns that are killing Americans each year, and the NRA is largely responsible for the inadequate background checks of gun buyers to the point of blocking legislation that would prevent the sale of guns and ammunition to suspected terrorists.

President Obama has been warning Congress and the American people for months that the bill could encourage other countries to reciprocate and allow their citizens to sue the American government and its agents (including American soldiers) for damages related to their actions in foreign nations.

Currently, American soldiers and other government agents are fighting and/or dropping bombs in seven countries. In several of these cases, thousands of civilians have become innocent victims to the actions of Americans abroad. In addition to our military personnel, 78 million Americans traveled abroad last year. Congress has just promoted the idea that the United States government should be held legally responsible for their actions outside the U.S.

Congress is now second-guessing itself about its law. Michael McAuliff, congressional reporter for The Huffington Post, reported that over two dozen lawmakers have sent a letter to congressional leaders "saying that maybe there should be changes" in the law they passed on the previous day.

Of course, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pushed the bill through the Senate, is blaming President Obama for the whole mess. After the vote, McConnell stated that "That was a good example, it seems to me, of a failure to communicate early about the potential consequences of a piece of legislation." However, McConnell admitted during a news conference that he did not think his colleagues had given much thought to the consequences of their bill. He stated, "I think it was just a ball dropped. I wish the president — I hate to blame everything on him, and I don't — but it would have been helpful had he, uh, we had a discussion about this much earlier than last week." In fact, Obama has been talking about the dangers of this bill for months as members of the 9/11 families have been pushing it through Congress.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, a sponsor of the bill, said afterward that the White House was "basically missing in action during this whole process." Yet, five months ago, Cornyn was critical of Obama for trying to stop the bill. Cornyn complained in April that "the administration has worked to undercut progress of this legislation at every turn. It appears that the Obama administration is pulling out all the stops to keep this bill from moving."

Republicans blamed the president for trying to block the bill months before they voted for the bill. Then, once they passed the bill, they want to blame the president for not stopping them.

Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan, writing for Reuters, have reported that both McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have said that "they might have to fix the legislation to protect U.S. service members" after the elections.

That would be after the November elections because members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — did not have the courage to deny 9/11 families their bill and suffer the possible consequences at the polls, even though they knew it was an irresponsible bill. After they are safely re-elected, however, they will do what they should have done in the first place.

Not exactly profiles in courage.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. E-mail him at