Senators Seek To Overhaul Congress’ Role In National Security With Bipartisan Legislation

Senators Seek To Overhaul Congress’ Role In National Security With Bipartisan Legislation


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Janet Ybarra
Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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A group of senators, made up of both Democrats and Republicans, have introduced legislation designed to reclaim Congress’ role in national security matters.

The National Security Powers Act specifically would safeguard congressional prerogatives in the use of military force, emergency powers and arms exports. In each of these cases, the president would be required to consult congressional leaders and obtain congressional authorization before exercising the powers in question. Any congressional authorization will have to meet specific requirements, including an automatic sunset. Under the National Security Powers Act, any activities lacking such authorization will face an automatic funding cutoff after a specified number of days.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), Chris Murphy (D-Conn), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are sponsoring the legislation in the Senate. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) will introduce companion legislation in the House in the coming weeks.

“I believe that we have become far too comfortable with the United States engaging in military interventions all over the world, and the time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its constitutional role in matters of war and peace,” said Sanders. “Article I of the Constitution clearly states that it is Congress, not the president, which has the power to declare war. The Framers gave that power to Congress, the branch most accountable to the people, but over many years Congress has allowed its oversight authority to wane and executive power to expand. This legislation is an important step toward reasserting that constitutional power, and I hope it will lead to a larger discussion, both in the Congress and among the public, about the uses of military force in our foreign policy.”

Title I: War Powers Reform

  • Would defines key terms left undefined in the original War Powers Resolution (WPR), especially the term “hostilities,” which over the years has been interpreted so narrowly by the executive branch that key aspects of the WPR became almost meaningless. Defining “hostilities” is necessary to make the War Powers Resolution, and especially the termination clock, meaningful. 
  • Would shorten the 60-day “termination clock,” after which the president must terminate hostilities that aren’t authorized by Congress. Shortening the period before automatic termination from 60 days to 20 days makes it harder for the Executive branch to start hostilities that are not defensive in nature.
  • Would add teeth to the WPR by automatically cutting off funding if the President does not secure the necessary congressional authorization.  Under current law, Congress must seek a veto-proof majority to terminate an unauthorized military action; this legislation “flips the script” so that funding automatically cuts off unless the President secures authorization from Congress.
  • Would outline requirements for future authorizations for use of military force, including a clearly defined mission and operational objectives, the identities of groups or countries targeted, and a two-year sunset. A subsequent authorization is required to expand the list of objectives, countries or targeted groups. 
  • Would sunset existing AUMFs, and specifies that future authorizations must meet the requirements in this legislation. 

Title II: Arms Export Reform

  • Would require an affirmative vote to approve certain types of arms sales. Under current law, all arms sales are approved automatically unless veto-proof majorities of both Houses of Congress pass a resolution to block the sale. This legislation requires Congress to affirmatively authorize foreign military sales and direct commercial sales of the most destructive and potentially destabilizing weapons that reach a certain monetary threshold.
    • Air to ground munitions of $14,000,000 or more
    • Tanks, armored vehicles, and related munitions of $14,000,000 or more
    • Firearms and ammunition of $1,000,000 or more
    • Fixed and rotary, manned and unmanned aircraft of $14,000,000 or more
    • Services and training above a certain value of $14,000,000 or more
  • Would allow sales to be packaged together to minimize individual votes, but allows controversial items to be removed from a proposed package. 

Title III: National Emergencies Reform

  • Would require Congress to proactively approve emergency declarations. Currently, Congress cannot override a national emergency declaration without a veto-proof majority. This legislation requires Congress to approve (1) an emergency declaration and (2) specific emergency powers within 30 days.
  • Would prevents the president from exploiting a crisis to increase executive authority.  Under existing law, the president can unlock a vast array of “emergency powers” by simply declaring a national emergency. This legislation requires that powers invoked must be related to nature of, and be used only to address, the declared emergency, and makes clear that powers may not be used to take actions Congress has considered and rejected.
  • Ends “permanent” emergencies. There are currently 37 so-called “emergencies” on the books, some dating back to the 1970s. This legislation requires renewal of emergencies after one year to be approved by Congress, and imposes a 5-year total limit on states of emergency.
  • Would prohibit use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to impose tariffs, although it can still be used to bar imports entirely.

“Presidents of both parties have usurped Congress’ prerogative to determine if, when, and how we go to war. Now America’s global standing, treasure, and brave service members are being lost in conflicts the people’s legislators never debated. In areas where the Constitution grants broad powers to Congress, Congress is ignored. The National Security Powers Act will change that and return these checks and balances to our government,” said Lee.

Read the bill here.

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