Senators introduce bipartisan legislation to reclaim Congress’s warmaking authority

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US soldiers raid a neighbourhood in the flashpoint Iraqi town of Fallujah, on 2 January 2004 (AFP via Getty Images)
US soldiers raid a neighbourhood in the flashpoint Iraqi town of Fallujah, on 2 January 2004 (AFP via Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of senators have released a bill aimed at restoring Congress’s authority to decide when the US goes to war, a move that would halt a decades-long trend of military actions largely directed by the executive branch.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Senators Mike Lee, Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy unveiled the National Security Powers Act, a bill that would automatically cut off funding for military actions after a set period of time unless congressional approval is obtained.

The multi-pronged legislation would significantly curtail the executive branch’s power in both the warmaking and arms sales sectors, reversing a trend that has led to the White House largely ignoring Congress when authorising shorter military actions and only seeking approval for major campaigns such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If passed, the bill would sunset all existing authorisations for the use of military force (AUMFs), and codify a legal definition for “hostilities”, which until now has been largely up to interpretation by the executive branch.

It would also require congressional approval for some arms sales, and curtail the president’s authority to declare national emergencies, requiring Congress to approve such declarations.

The wide-ranging nature of the bill means it is likely one of the most significant efforts by the legislative branch to reclaim power that it is legally given under the Constitution in recent memory.

At their press conference on Tuesday, the senators stressed that reforming the president’s authority on these issues was a bipartisan priority that would correct a trend of ceding power to the executive branch that had occurred under both parties’ watch.

“Under the existing body of laws that we have in place ... you basically have to get Congress to act to undo action taken by the executive,” said Mr Lee, referring to uses of military force as well as national emergency declarations. “None of these things are supposed to be able to occur without Congress affirmatively acting. And yet, we’ve flipped the polarity”.

“I believe we have become far too comfortable with the United States engaging in military interventions all over the world with barely any debate in Congress about the costs and potential consequences of those interventions”, said Mr Sanders, adding: “The time is long overdue for Congress to reassert its role in matters of war and peace.”

The Independent has reached out to the White House for comment on whether President Joe Biden would sign the legislation if it reached his desk. The two Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, Mr Sanders and Mr Murphy, currently enjoy majorities in both the Senate and House while Mr Lee’s involvement suggests the issue could potentially find enough support to propel it past the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster in the Senate.

In March, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told Politico that the administration was interested in working with Congress on reforming AUMFs to “ensure that the authorisations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars”.

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