Rep. Peter Meijer (Mich.)(Creative Commons/Tom Caprara) and Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.)(USDA photo by Bob Nichols)
McGovern, Meijer tee up House bill clawing back war powers from president

Now we have a bicameral, bipartisan fight on our hands over who has authority to determine how US military powers are used.

The bipartisan effort to strengthen and restore Congressional war powers becomes bicameral today, as Representatives Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) introduce the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act. 

This is the House counterpart to the bipartisan National Security Powers Act introduced last month by Senators Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders, and Mike Lee. Like the Senate bill, the House  NSRAAwould require Congress to live up to its Constitutional responsibility to determine and control how the nation’s military powers are used.

“For decades, presidents of both parties have slowly but surely usurped Congressional authority on matters of national security. It’s happened regardless of who occupies the Oval Office or which party is in charge on Capitol Hill,” said McGovern, in a statement announcing the bill today. “We need to come together in a bipartisan way to reclaim our rightful role as a co-equal branch of government before it’s too late, and that is what the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act aims to do.”

​The introduction of these bills is the latest chapter in a long battle to reverse the transfer of war powers to the executive. After the debacle of Vietnam, the 1975 War Powers Resolution attempted to restore the Constitutional requirement that Congress approve the use of military force. But aggressive executive branch efforts to assert control of the military, especially after the War on Terror began in 2001, combined with reluctance by Congress to rein in the executive, has led to the current necessity to re-assert Congressional powers.

“The National Security Reforms and Accountability Act will put Congress back in the driver’s seat so we can deliver on our duty to the American people as it is laid out by the Constitution, ” Meijer added in his own statement.

The executive branch is still drawing on decades-old authorizations of military force, such as the Congressional authorizations for war in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2002, to justify the use of the military in circumstances far removed from those that led to the original authorization. Today, only a small minority of Americans could even name the countries where the U.S. is exerting military force on the ground. Beyond the direct use of military force, the executive is also making unilateral decisions on a wide variety of quasi-military uses of force, including arms sales and other forms of support to foreign militaries engaged in hostilities, and the enforcement of broad-based economic sanctions on entire populations, something that has traditionally been viewed as an act of war.

The NSRAA requires rapid Congressional approval of a wide range of executive branch actions that involve military or quasi-military force. Unlike the existing War Powers legislation, it adds teeth to this requirement by automatically cutting off funding if approval is not forthcoming. The automatic funding cutoff in the absence of a positive vote of Congressional approval is an even more significant change because it definitively removes the ability of the executive branch to veto Congressional disapproval of the use of force. 

The legislation also automatically sunsets Congressional authorizations for the use of force after a two-year period, which would end the current practice of claiming that long outdated Congressional authorizations justify current military engagements.

The NSRAA also explicitly expands requirements for Congressional approval to the areas of arms sales and declarations of emergency that justify unilateral executive actions. Crucially, these reforms extend to the executive branch imposition of economic sanctions which are authorized under emergency powers.  Broad-based economic sanctions have a terrible human cost but receive far too little oversight or attention from Congress and the public.

Some recent votes indicate that Congress may be growing more assertive in its use of war powers. These include the majority vote to cut off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, and a vote of 141 House members, including a majority of Democratic House members, to end the long-time U.S. military presence in Syria if explicit Congressional approval was not forthcoming within a year. The NSRAA and the National Security Powers Act are much more extensive and comprehensive reforms and passage will be a long-term and challenging effort. 

But as the public’s impatience  over extensive, murky, and unaccountable military engagements abroad grows, lawmakers could be emboldened to finally put these critical efforts over the finish line. Let’s hope so.

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