Congress seems determined to set a new standard for craven incompetence. Less than 24 hours after the Senate and House delivered a stinging rebuke to President Obama by overriding his veto of a bill that would let the Sept. 11 families sue Saudi Arabia, Republican leaders raised the possibility of a do-over.
On Thursday the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that “nobody had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped.”
It’s rare to hear such a baldfaced admission of gross ineptitude. But instead of putting the responsibility entirely where it belongs — on Congress — Mr. McConnell went on absurdly to blame Mr. Obama for failing to communicate the potential consequences of the bill. In fact, Mr. Obama, the national security agencies, the Saudi government, retired diplomats, the European Union and big corporations had all bombarded Congress with warnings. Yet lawmakers ignored all of them in a rush to pass the legislation and then, this week, override Mr. Obama’s veto by a large bipartisan vote.
The new law would allow families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for any role it had in the terrorist operation. It would do that by expanding an exception to sovereign immunity, the legal principle that protects foreign countries and their diplomats from lawsuits in the American legal system.
The aim of the bill — to give the families their day in court — is compassionate, but it is already complicating the American relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it could expose the American government, citizens and corporations to lawsuits abroad. And while the families believe that Saudi Arabia played a role in the attacks because 15 of the 19 hijackers, who were members of Al Qaeda, were Saudis, an independent American commission that investigated the attacks found no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials directed or financed the terrorists.
Just what has caused Republican leaders to have second thoughts is unclear. “I’d like to think that there’s a way we can fix [it] so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims,” Paul Ryan, the House speaker, told reporters on Thursday, acknowledging one of the dangers.
It is even less clear what lawmakers could do to mitigate that or the other problems with this ill-conceived law. The Saudi government, in a statement, said it hoped Congress would “correct this legislation” in its lame duck session after the November election. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has suggested that changes could include limiting suits to the Sept. 11 attacks or creating a separate legal tribunal.
But foreign governments could still retaliate by taking similar steps, like carving out sovereign immunity exceptions for specific incidents of importance to them — perhaps America’s mistaken bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan in 2015 that killed 42 people. Congress has once again embarrassed itself and harmed American interests in the process. The only way to fix this law is to repeal it.