Senators Seek to Reassert Congressional War Powers With Bill

Three senators are proposing legislation to re-assert congressional authority over the power to make war, including sending troops into combat, selling lethal weapons to other countries and declaring national emergencies.

It would be the most sweeping overhaul of Congress’s authority over military matters since passage of the War Powers Resolution in 1973 as a check on the executive branch over the protestations of then-President Richard Nixon. It came about, in part, as a reaction to the tumult of the Vietnam War.

As with the aftermath of that lengthy and divisive conflict, the bipartisan legislation comes as the U.S. withdraws from its longest war, in Afghanistan.

The bill is being introduced by Senators Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.

Lee, a conservative Republican, has expressed frustration with both Democratic and Republican presidents over unilateral use of military force. He criticized the Trump administration for carrying out a targeted airstrike in Iraq against the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani without congressional approval in January 2020. He added that Congress is often ignored, even when members try to assert their authority on these matters.

“Presidents of both parties have usurped Congress’s prerogative to determine if, when, and how we go to war,” he said in a statement. “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.”

In addition to repealing existing authorizations for the use of military force, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bill would require Congress to approve the sale of several types of weapons, including tanks, armored vehicles, drones, firearms, ammunition and air to ground munitions above a certain price threshold.

That represents a substantial change from the current policy, which only gives Congress the ability to “disapprove” sales once the process has started and requires a veto-proof majority to halt them.

It provides Congress increased authority over when and how the president can declare a national emergency, which can give the executive branch enhanced powers in some situations. The measure would require the approval of Congress within 30 days for emergency declarations and powers. It would also end permanent emergencies, requiring Congress to renew them periodically and establishing a 5-year limit on states of emergency.

It also bars the use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to impose tariffs, though the act still can be used to ban imports entirely.

“The time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its constitutional role in matters of war and peace,” Sanders said in a statement. “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.”

Murphy warned in his statement that “before it’s too late, Congress needs to reclaim its rightful role as co-equal branch on matters of war and national security.”

A House version of the bill is expected to be introduced by Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who said that the changes were made necessary by the nature of modern warfare.

“Everything has changed over the last few decades: when we fight, how we fight, and why we fight,” McGovern said in a statement. “I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Biden administration to put an end to endless wars, reexamine broad executive powers, and build a more safe and peaceful world.”

The bill, called the National Security Powers Act, would clarify and strengthen the 1973 War Powers Act.

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