The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is considered “must-pass” legislation for Congress and the President as it fulfills the legislative branch’s constitutional duties of authorizing the Pentagon’s budget. With the Democrats in control of the House, anti-war and pro-diplomacy activists saw an opportunity to rein in a dangerous president who, by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing crushing sanctions, was pushing the United States and Iran toward a long-anticipated military confrontation.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and nominal Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), both on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), the panel that writes the NDAA, put forth an amendment that would prevent the administration from using any funds to fight Iran without authorization from Congress. In the bill’s all-night markup process, HASC chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) objected to the amendment as written but promised Khanna and Gaetz to work together to put the essence in the final legislation, which eventually passed on the House floor.
At the same time, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) mustered support from much more establishment Members of Congress like Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) to pass an amendment that would repeal the 2002 Authorization for Military Force for Iraq. The law originally provided congressional support for then-President Bush to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussien, but it continues to this day to authorize a U.S. military presence in the region. A wide variety of advocates supported the measure, even the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which called it “good policy.”
However, the Republican-controlled Senate version of the NDAA looked very different. There was no equivalent of the Khanna/Gaetz amendment, or the Lee amendment, from the Senate Armed Services Committee. Instead, SASC established a new branch of the military, “Space Force.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) granted Sen.Tom Udall (D-N.M.) a vote on an amendment that resembled Khanna/Gaetz and it received a majority and bipartisan support (50 yeses, 40 nos) on the floor, but not the 60 votes that were required to add it to the legislation.
And so the NDAA came to conference as two vastly different bills, a House version that would check Donald Trump, an executive that Democrats claim is dangerous to the country and the world, and a Senate bill that would enable him to that logic. As Congress returned from summer recess and the conference committee was named, the Trump-Ukraine scandal went into overdrive and pushed the House into launching an impeachment investigation, which delayed the NDAA conference.
But on December 9, the NDAA conference report was released and, despite the Democrats’ claims that Trump is a threat to national security, it did not have Rep. Lee’s amendment repealing the 2002 AUMF, nor the Khanna/Gaetz amendment blocking funding for war with Iran. Why? When Democrats have already determined that Trump is dangerous and are impeaching him for using national security to his political advantage rather than the national interest, why hand him the keys to the national security state in which he was already locked into a series of escalations with Iran?
Democrats were clearly not willing to tank the NDAA to play “politics” with national security in the same way that the Republicans were. HASC chair Rep. Smith sarcastically lamented that he couldn’t convince Republicans to become Democrats. In reality, Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner told him what the White House would sign and he accepted that.
Weeks later, Trump ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds force, accelerating a series of escalations toward war with Iran. While the legal authority for the strike has not been confirmed, it has been unusually classified, Trump’s National Security Advisor has said it is covered by the 2002 AUMF, which could have been repealed had Democrats stood firm.
Rep. Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are now re-introducing the Khanna/Gaetz amendment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) meanwhile, condemned the assassination of Soleimani, but has only called for a briefing in response, thus essentially reducing her role to bystander.
The inability of Congress to take back power from the executive branch lies solely with congressional leadership. Even when faced with an executive like Donald Trump, they still defer. This deference comes from a political fear of being labelled weak on national security, anti-military, anti-American, or unsupportive of the troops. But there is also widespread conviction on Capitol Hill, despite all evidence to the contrary, in the competence and morality of the national security state that serves under the executive. As recent polling has shown, though, this post 9/11 crouch flies in the face of what voters want; they want restraint and are weary of an aggressive foreign policy. Our representatives in Washington appear deaf to that. And it’s largely this deference that enables Congress to give any executive free rein, even Donald Trump, the very man Democrats are impeaching for abusing his power on national security issues. The irony is not lost.
The assassination of Soleimani shows how our inability to end old wars could potentially begin new ones. Congress voted to go to war in 2002 and now that authorization could lead directly to a new war that has nothing to do with its original intent. Some members recognize this danger as, in addition to the Khanna/Sanders push, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has announced his intention to offer a War Powers Resolution on Iran in the Senate, while Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Lee will enter the companion in the House. On Monday, Speaker Pelosi announced, through a Dear Colleague Letter, a War Power Resolution that she will support led by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.). However, it is unclear as of now whether she supports the Khanna/Sanders effort. Still, there is no word from Congress on whether it will revisit the effort to repeal 2002 AUMF. If Congress is not willing to reclaim its role as the body that decides if and when the country goes to war by preventing an unauthorized war with Iran, then we face a constitutional crisis and a war that they will all own too.