Bipartisan Effort to End White House’s Unconstitutional War Powers

July 30th, 2023 - by Blaise Malley / Responsible Statecraft

GOP and Democrat Reps Are Targeting
Use of Force, Emergency Declarations, Arms Sales
Blaise Malley / Responsible Statecraft

(July 27, 2023) — The bipartisan effort to restore Congress’ constitutional role in issues of war and peace continued today with the introduction of an expansive effort to reign in the executive’s power on a number of national security questions.

Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Nancy Mace (R-SC) are leading the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act (NSRAA), a wide-ranging initiative that tackles reforms to war powers, arms exports, and national emergencies.

Lawmakers have looked to restore balance of power between the legislative and executive branches in the recent past in more narrow ways, but the recently-introduced legislation takes on structural reforms across the board.

“Allowing administration after administration — presidents from both sides of the aisle— to usurp Congressional authority on matters of national security without check is irresponsible,” said McGovern in a statement. “The Constitution of the United States is clear: the power to declare war rests solely with the Congress and it is crucial we reassert our body’s power to make the tough decisions about when, where, and how to put American troops in harm’s way.”

“The American people are tired of endless foreign wars, and want to know they have a say via their elected representatives,” added Mace. “This important piece of legislation goes a long way to restoring the authority the Founding Fathers gave Congress and ensuring our men and women who volunteer to serve and protect our nation are not needlessly sacrificed.”

A similar bill was introduced by McGovern and then-Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) during the 117th Congress, but the legislation was never taken up for a vote.

The NSRAA aims to strengthen some of the requirements of the 1973 War Powers Act — which requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of deploying armed forces and, absent Congressional approval, forbids armed forces from being deployed for more than 60 days — by automatically cutting off funding in the absence of a positive vote of Congressional approval.

The War Powers Act has been invoked once in legislation that passed both chambers of Congress. A bipartisan 2019 bill called for an end to US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen — but it was eventually vetoed by President Donald Trump. This year, members of Congress have unsuccessfully used War Powers Act resolutions to force a withdrawal of US forces from Somalia and Syria.

McGovern and Mace’s bill would require future authorizations of force (AUMFs) to include a clearly defined mission, and clearly defined countries or armed entities against whom the use of force is permitted, along with the automatic end of any future such authorizations after two years.

Currently, US military operations overseas are justified by broad AUMFs passed more than two decades ago. The Senate voted to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq War authorizations earlier this year, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy has reportedly pledged to take up AUMF related legislation on the House floor in the near future. There have also been Congressional attempts to repeal the broader 2002 AUMF, including a recent amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act introduced by Rep. Dan Bishop, but that law also remains on the books.

“The NSRAA reflects the lessons learned from the past two decades of forever wars and executive branch overreach…” Heather Brandon-Smith Deputy Director for Foreign Policy at FCNL, told RS. The bill “would ensure that Congress, as the branch most responsible to the American people, is put back in the driver’s seat on matters of war and peace. After more than 20 years of unchecked war, we welcome these much-needed reforms that would restore the constitutional balance of national security powers.”

The NSRAA would also impose guardrails on what policies could be enacted under the National Emergencies Act and would require Congress to approve the renewal of emergencies after one year and would impose a five-year limit on states of emergency.

National emergencies — of which there are 41 currently in effect, dating back as far as the Jimmy Carter administration — have also been the target of more narrow Congressional action recently, with Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Eli Crane (R-Ariz), and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), all putting forth unsuccessful attempts to end presidential emergencydeclarations that allow for sanctions against Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this month.

When it comes to arms sales, the bill would require Congress to actively approve for the sales of air-to-ground munitions, tanks, armored vehicles, manned and unmanned aircraft, and more arms valued at $14 million or more, as well as firearms and ammunition with more than $1 million in value. As of 2019, presidents have approved at least $145 billion worth of weapons sales since 1986, according to the Washington Post.

“The American people deserve a voice on where, when, and against whom the US wages war, and to whom it sells lethal arms,” said Lora Lumpe, CEO of the Quincy Institute, in a statement. “By requiring a congressional vote on these decisions, this bipartisan bill democratizes foreign policy—ensuring that the people have a say on matters of war and peace through their representatives in Congress.”

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