Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton admits to being something of a breath of youth in a legislative body not generally known for being spry. The youngest sitting senator, Cotton, who just had his 40th birthday, quips that only two of his colleagues were elected before he was born. Despite his youth, Cotton is quickly becoming a rising star in the GOP. On Thursday, he spoke with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius at an event focusing on the broad national security threats America faces, including North Korea, Iran, the JCPOA, and gun control. Cotton, who was scheduled to meet with President Trump soon after the talk, used his time to stress the need for America to project strength on the world stage.
First on his list of rogues is Iran. Cotton believes that refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed under the Obama administration would give the U.S. an opportunity to work with its allies in the region and in Europe to try to get a “better deal.”
“This deal is not in America’s national security interests,” he said. “Even if the JCPOA stands, by the end of the next decade, they will be a lawful and legitimate nuclear power. I don’t think we can live with that. I don’t think Israel can live with that. I don’t think our Arab allies can live with that.”
For Cotton, a new and improved agreement would remove the sunset clause for Iranian nuclear development, hamstring their centrifuge and research development, stop ballistic missile testing, and change the menu of responses open in the event that Iran reneges on the deal. The current JCPOA offers few options outside of snapback sanctions, which makes it more difficult to garner European support, says Cotton. Part of the problem is that the treaty applies the same policy response to any Iranian violation, regardless of degree.
“Snapback sanctions are kind of like saying you only get the death penalty for murder or jaywalking,” he quipped.
Instead, Cotton wants to look towards other options that would keep international pressure on the Iranian regime without limiting the potential response types. Of crucial importance for him is an extended view of the future, which recognizes that an nuclear Iran will be just as harmful in 10 years as it is today, but fewer options will then be available.
“That is the blink of an eye in the lifetime of a nation,” he said of the ten-year projection that is the foundation of the JCPOA, citing North Korea as an example of a rogue regime that used treaties to buy time for its nuclear program.
Cotton’s strict interpretation of the law also extended to his view on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted temporary amnesty for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Expressing sympathy for young adults who have been raised as Americans, but still lack legal status, Cotton said that he worried that continuing the program would create a new “chain of immigration” with extended families following DACA recipients into the U.S.
The issue is part of the broader problems that Cotton sees in American immigration policy, which he broadly categorized as issues of documentation, enforcement, and border security. He has introduced a bill in Congress to address at least part of this problem, namely green cards. Cotton, who described his plan as moving immigration policy away from one designed for last century’s country and economy, towards one designed for this century’s country and economy, prioritizes immigrants with education and useful job skills, rather than family members of current immigrants.
“Every year we give out about the state of Montana in green cards,” Cotton said, trying to put the number into perspective. When immigration skews towards low-skilled labor, these new workers put a drag on American wages, particularly for those with only a high school education or less.
To accomplish this goal, Cotton wants to see Congress take action to end chain migration, which allows current residents to bring over family members. Cotton told Ignatius that he was willing to compromise with his colleagues in Congress and vote to pass an extension of DACA if Congress was able to pass a bill ending chain migration.
For Cotton, immigration is one of many issues that exposes how the life experiences of America’s elites differ from those of the working class.
“I’m more connected to the places in the country that understand the negative side of immigration,” he said. “If you live in New York City, Washington, or San Francisco, you see mainly the benefits of immigration. If you work the kind of job where you take a shower after you get off work rather than before you go to work, you see the negative side of immigration.”
These negatives include lost jobs and lower wages. While he did not want to discuss the likelihood of such a measure passing the Senate, Cotton emphasized the necessity for these types of reform.
It was a dense, information packed hour before Cotton had to rush back to Capitol Hill.
Correction: An earlier version of the piece identified David Ignatius as an associate editor with the Washington Post. He is an opinion columnist.