The decision to go to war shouldn’t rest with one person.
A president shouldn’t be able to declare a national emergency that could last for decades.
And any massive arms sales to allies should be approved by more than just the commander in chief.
That’s the argument of a bipartisan group of senators who unveiled new legislation Tuesday that would wrest some control from the president and give it to Congress.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, helped craft this bill with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Lee is among the most conservative senators, and Sanders is among the most liberal. On this issue, they agree. They say the Founding Fathers wanted Congress to play a big part in national security issues and that Congress must reclaim that role.
“These are some reforms that are long overdue,” Lee said in a news conference at the Capitol. “They’re much needed, and they’re, quite frankly, consistent with the Constitution.”
The president, as commander in chief, leads the military and can respond quickly to hostilities, but the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war and to authorize lengthy military actions. Presidents largely have sidestepped Congress, not seeking a war declaration, and relying on authorizations for the use of military force, known in Washington as AUMF, that are broad and do not expire unless Congress acts.
Lee said the House and Senate deserve some blame for abdicating this role.
“The war powers really are an area where we’ve deviated so dangerously from the text of the Constitution over the course of many decades,” he said. “Sadly, under the leadership of both political parties and both houses.”
Sanders said as presidents act almost completely on their own, the national debates that should take place before the United States commits troops to a fight are blunted.
“We have become far too comfortable,” he said, “with the United States engaging in military interventions all over the world with barely any debate in Congress or in the public about the costs and potential unintended consequences.”
Their bill would end all existing AUMFs and require any future authorizations to expire after two years. Their measure would cut funding for an unauthorized military action unless the president gets the approval of Congress. As it now stands, presidents can act and if Congress doesn’t like it, it must pass legislation with a veto-proof majority to end such conflicts. That rarely happens.
“We flip the script when it comes to how these hostilities begin and end,” Murphy said.
The Connecticut senator said he doesn’t expect President Joe Biden to back this bill, and he knows the group will need time to persuade colleagues to come on board.
He said it is possible that pieces of this bill are added to other legislation moving through Congress.
But Murphy argues their position is gaining traction. One example is renewed debates in Congress about phasing out the AUMFs passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Biden supports the ending of that authorization, though some in Congress don’t. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, remains skeptical and has called for open hearings before any vote. He’s concerned about how the repeal would impact the fight against the Islamic State group.
Romney also opposed the decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, a move backed by Lee, Sanders and Murphy.
“When that authorization was given in 2001,” Sanders said, “I suspect that not one member of Congress dreamed that American troops would still be in Afghanistan nearly 20 years later under a vague and expansive authorization.”
The three senators also want to limit the president’s power to declare a national emergency. Their bill would require Congress to approve a declaration within 30 days and vote on it annually. No emergency declaration could last longer than five years. Right now, the U.S. has 37 active national emergencies. The oldest was declared by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis. It orders the freezing of Iranian assets.
Their measure also would require Congress to OK arms sales. Murphy said the president’s unilateral ability to act has led to “reckless levels of arms sales.” He argued this bill would increase the role Congress plays and also may limit some of these actions.
“If it’s difficult to get the Congress to pass a war authorization, if it’s difficult to get the Congress to authorize an arms sale, if it’s difficult to get the Congress to declare a national emergency — that’s probably for good reason,” Murphy said. “It is likely because the American public are deeply skeptical of vast national emergency powers and increasing levels of arms sales and the commitment of our troops overseas.”
This isn’t the first time Lee has struck up a bipartisan effort to limit the power of the presidency. He worked with Sanders and Murphy on ending the U.S. involvement in the Saudi Arabia-led fighting in Yemen. They got a resolution through the Senate, but it was rejected by former President Donald Trump. Biden has agreed to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in this conflict.
Murphy said he’s been talking to Lee about this legislation for more than a year, well before the presidential election was decided. The Utah senator said he expects support for this effort to grow over time.
“I’m anticipating a lot of Republicans coming on board, not just because we’ve got a Democratic president now and it’s easier for them to do that,” he said. “But I think people are really seeing the bad things that can happen when we get into war accidentally.”