As Ukrainian military personnel, police and volunteers laid green tarps over the bodies of at least 50 people, including five children, killed by a Russian missile strike at a railway station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on Friday, federal lawmakers were easing into a two-week recess.
For months, the House and Senate have been at a standstill over how to deter Russia’s military aggression, even as the number of Ukrainian casualties swells to more than 3,400, according to the latest report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As federal agencies, including the Departments of Commerce and Justice, work to execute sanctions and confiscations, Congress itself has passed mostly symbolic legislation.
On Thursday, lawmakers sent two bills to President Joe Biden’s desk. The first removes Russia and Belarus from a list of countries that benefit from “permanent normal trade relations” with the United States. The bill directs the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to persuade other World Trade Organization member countries to suspend Russia’s “most-favored-nation” trade status and to remove the country from the international organization. The second bill codifies an existing ban on Russian energy imports.
Lawmakers were quick to grandstand about the importance of the new legislation. Taken together, they will “send a message to a dictator in Russia,” said House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat. “This package is about bringing every tool of economic pressure to bear on Vladimir Putin and his oligarch cronies,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate finance Committee, in a statement. “Putin’s Russia does not deserve to be a part of the economic order that has existed since the end of World War II.”
But beyond sending a message, the bills don’t do much. Biden has already issued an executive orders banning imports from Russia of oil, liquefied natural gas, coal, seafood, alcoholic beverages, and diamonds, and exports of luxury goods to Russia. He has also already imposed restrictions on U.S. energy investments in Russia.
Those moves have had only limited effect, largely because the U.S. is not a primary destination of Russian products; Russia was America’s 26th largest goods trading partner in 2019, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. So the bill that Congress passed Thursday that effectively increases the tariffs on Russian goods isn’t a crushing punishment. Moreover, Biden’s executive orders already entirely banned the few key imports between the U.S. and Russia, like fuel.
The House passed another bill Wednesday directing Biden to authorize a report investigating the extent to which Russia is engaging in war crimes against Ukraine. That bill must make it through the Senate.
U.S. government deterrence efforts are, so far, mostly being executed by the administrative state. On Thursday, the Commerce Department banned companies from providing any refueling, maintenance, spare parts, or servicing to three Russian airlines. The Justice Department also helped Spanish law enforcement seize a sanctioned Russian oligarch’s $90 million yacht earlier in April. “Today marks our task force’s first seizure of an asset belonging to a sanctioned individual with close ties to the Russian regime,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said April 4. “It will not be the last.”
Congress’ relative powerlessness is partly structural. The legislative branch wields the power of the purse; the executive branch can issue sanctions on its own. In March, Congress sent a significant, nearly $14 billion package providing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But Congress’s inaction is also the result of national politics. Lawmakers from both parties, while largely supporting efforts to sanction and punish the Putin regime, are attempting to balance their constituents’ preferences just months before the November midterms.
One pressure point? Economic restrictions on Russia may increase already sky-high inflation and further exacerbate existing supply chain challenges, amid a period in which voters are ranking economic issues, particularly rising inflation, as the issue most important to them, according to Gallup polling. For the most part, Americans remain committed to backing Ukraine. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of Americans were willing to go so far as to label Russian President Vladimir Putin as mentally unstable; the same Quinnipiac poll showed Americans had overwhelmingly positive opinions of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with 64% viewing him favorably, versus 6% viewing him unfavorably, and 29% not knowing enough to have an opinion.
But six House Republicans, including Reps. Paul Gosar and Majorie Taylor Greene, voted against the bill requesting Biden to commission a report merely looking into whether Putin is engaging in war crimes. Three House Republicans opposed a motion for the trade bill to proceed, and nine House members—including seven Republicans and Democrats Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar—opposed a motion allowing the oil embargo bill to progress to Biden’s desk.
Ten House Republicans also signed onto a bill introduced in February that would have prevented military aid to Ukraine until a border wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border is complete—in other words, not anytime during Biden’s presidency.
As bodies continue to pile up at Ukrainian railway stations, Mariupol movie theaters and maternity hospitals, America’s legislative body will return from recess in two weeks in the same position they were when they left town: with limited ability to penalize Russia and a lack of unity on the narrow means they do have.
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