The Russia Sanctions Review Act of 2017, as set out in companion House and Senate bills, seems to be gaining some traction.  If enacted, it would codify into law the core portions of the US sanctions regime on Russia and provide for congressional review of any proposed sanctions relief by the President, not unlike the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, on which we previously advised.  The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).  While it previously had an equal number of backers from each party, it currently has three Republican and 14 Democrat co-sponsors, as additional members have been signing on in recent weeks.  The House version is sponsored by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and also has bipartisan support.  It too has added several new co-sponsors from each party over the past two weeks, which could be a sign of developing momentum.  The House version currently has 11 Republican and 16 Democrat co-sponsors.  If the Republican leadership in Congress decides to move forward with some type of legislation on Russia sanctions, this bill may be more palatable than the more far-reaching Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017, on which we previously advised.  However, any congressional action in this area will depend in the first instance on how the Trump Administration’s Russia policy develops, and any resulting public pressure for Congress to take legislative action on Russia policy.  Neither the Russia Sanctions Review Act nor the Countering Russian Hostilities Act appears to be a priority for quick movement at this time. 

The Russia Sanctions Review Act would codify into law all of the principal executive orders imposing sanctions against Russia that were in effect on January 1, 2017, which Congress intends as a limit on the President’s executive authority to lift those sanctions.  The January 1 date is significant because it would incorporate the major cyber-related sanctions that President Obama imposed on Russia on December 29, 2016, which we discussed at the time, in addition to Executive Orders 13660, 13661, 13662, and 13685, which impose sanctions related to the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  Regarding those sanctions, see our advisories here, here, and here.  These bills would also codify “any sanctions imposed pursuant to” those executive orders as of the same date, which presumably would include the directives issued by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and the designations on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) and Sectoral Sanctions Identifications (SSI) lists that were made under those orders and directives, and could also include the Entity List designations made by the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS).  Some export controls related to Russia may not be codified into law by this bill because they do not appear to have relied on the authority of those executive orders, such as the restrictions imposed by BIS on transactions involving Russia’s deepwater, Arctic offshore and shale oil and gas resources, and those involving military end-users or end-uses in Russia.  It is worth keeping in mind that there are other sanctions impacting Russia, not affected by this bill, that are imposed under other authorities, many of which have a statutory basis, such as the Magnitsky Act, Syria-related sanctions, nonproliferation sanctions, and others.

The Russia Sanctions Review Act provides for congressional review of any executive action to lift sanctions against Russia.  Specifically, it would require the President, “before taking any action to waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from, or otherwise limit the application of sanctions” on Russia, to describe the proposed action to Congress and certify that Russia

“has ceased— (A) ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, supporting, or financing, significant acts intended to undermine the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, including through an agreement between the appropriate parties; and (B) cyberattacks against the United States Government and United States persons.”

That is a fairly high bar for a change in Russia’s behavior, at least in eastern Ukraine, although it is not explicitly clear whether it would apply to Crimea.

After the President submits to Congress a sanctions relief proposal along with this required certification, Congress would have 120 calendar days to hold hearings and review the President’s proposal. During that period, the President “may not waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from, or otherwise limit the application of sanctions” on Russia.

If both houses of Congress pass a joint resolution of disapproval during this period, “the President may not waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from, or otherwise limit the application of sanctions” on Russia for 12 calendar days.  If the President were to allow the resolution to become law, he would be prohibited by statute from proceeding with the proposed sanctions relief.  If the President were to veto it, he would face another 10 calendar day waiting period before the statute would allow him to implement the proposed relief.  If Congress were to override the veto, the statutory prohibition would remain in effect.  If Congress failed to override the veto, presumably the President would be free to proceed with the proposed relief.  While the bills as currently drafted are not entirely clear on some of these points, this appears to be the intent.  Although if the President and Congress were to clash on a major foreign policy issue such as this, constitutional powers would likely come into play as well, and the statute may not be the final word.

In any case, the 120-calendar day review period on its own, combined with a fairly strict factual certification requirement, would be a significant move by Congress to limit executive authority in this important area of US foreign policy.

The Republican leadership in the House and Senate may be waiting to give the Trump Administration time to develop a more clear policy on Russia before putting their full weight behind these bills.  However, increased pressure for Congress to intervene on Russia policy could cause them to move quickly, so it is worth being aware of what is in the legislative pipeline.