Wednesday’s passing of former speaker of the House Jim Wright offers a useful contrast to the recent grandstanding that we’ve seen from some Republicans, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, on international relations. And as the 17-term legislator is being remembered, it’s worth recalling a moment in our political history when aggressive congressional intervention had a more positive impact on international dialogue.
This was the case in 1987 with Speaker Wright and Nicaragua. House Democrats had been fighting President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive policies in Central America since the start of his presidency in 1981. Between 1982 and 1984, when Tip O’Neill was speaker and Wright served as majority leader, the House passed the Boland Amendments, which placed restrictions on the kind of intervention that the administration could pursue in Nicaragua. Reagan was eager to provide support to the Nicaraguan Contras who were trying to overthrow the left-wing Sandinista government but Wright and other Democrats believed the Contras were a dangerous organization. To circumvent the restrictions, a group of officials in the National Security Council and CIA organized a covert operation to use money from the sale of weapons to Iran to provide assistance to the Contras despite the prohibitions.
Following the 1986 midterm elections, when Democrats regained control of the Senate, O’Neill resigned and Wright became speaker. The Reagan administration was thrown into a defensive position when the Iran-Contra scandal broke out over the revelation of the covert assistance to the Contras. It seemed that there was little chance for Reagan to reverse and obtain congressional support for assistance to the Contras.
At the same time, through the Organization of American States, the presidents of Columbia, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Costa Rica were working on a peace plan. The leaders believed that in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan was in a weakened condition politically, providing them an opportunity to find a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Nicaragua that had devastated the region. Wright indirectly participated in these discussions through intermediaries and in late July 1987, the various parties reached the framework for an agreement.
The White House, aware of what was happening, asked Wright to help the administration pursue a peace agreement — although Reagan’s team didn’t do this with the best intentions. As John Barry recounted in The Ambition and the Power—The Fall of Jim Wright: A True Story of Washington, their expectation, and hope, was that the peace agreement would fall apart. This would, in turn, bolster support for the United States to provide assistance to the Contras, even after the revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal. On Aug. 4, Reagan announced a “general agreement” with Congress to pursue an initiative with a deadline of Sept. 30. In the meantime, Reagan would not seek assistance for the Contras. The goal was to obtain a cease-fire between the Contras and Sandinistas and a clear timetable for political reforms. Just a few days after Reagan announced his initiative, the Organization of American States announced a November deadline for reaching an agreement. Feeling that he had no choice, Reagan went along with their timetable. Wright agreed since he was hopeful that the various regional actors could make this plan work, though many Democrats felt Reagan had no intention of seeing this through.
In the intervening months, there were moments when there seemed to be real progress in the region, while other times — like when Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega met with Cuban President Fidel Castro — a lasting peace seemed impossible.
When the deadline finally came, the Nicaraguans hadn’t reached any settlement, so Wright decided to play a more proactive role. And when Ortega visited the United States, Wright conducted his own negotiations when Reagan refused to meet with him. Wright’s meeting with Ortega included Cardinal Miguel Obanda y Bravo, an archbishop who was a friend of Wright’s and had strong ties to all sides in the conflict. As a result of the discussions, the Sandinistas agreed to a cease-fire that generally resembled the plan put forward by the Central American leaders.
But Republicans were livid: Kansas Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum accused Wright of having possibly violating the Logan Act. “I think it’s at best unseemly,” said Arizona Senator John McCain, “and at worst unconstitutional.”
During a private meeting with the administration, Reagan reprimanded Wright. “We let him have it pretty good,” Reagan recounted in his diary. The speaker, though, wasn’t dissuaded, and insisted that he had informed Secretary of State George Shultz of what he was doing. And as the attacks intensified, Wright pushed back: “Some people in the Administration are scared to death that peace will break out.”
His intervention wound up being an important step in moving forward the long-term negotiations that resulted in an agreement between the five major Central American leaders and began a process that led to the end of Nicaragua’s civil war and elections in 1990.
By contrast, many Democrats today appear to have trouble seeing how congressional intervention in foreign affairs can have positive results. Their bias has often been to acquiesce to muscular executive power. But even if recent episodes, like Cotton’s approach to Iran, have been about congressional grand-standing, it’s worth looking back on the moment when Speaker Wright took a controversial step that, while not perfect, helped move a region toward greater peace.