Congress faces a crucial test on war powers

 Congress faces a crucial test on war powers
© Getty Images

If there’s been a single, clear, consistent foreign policy message that’s emerged from the last decade of U.S. elections, it’s simple: Voters are exhausted of open-ended, expensive, destructive, and unaccountable foreign wars. From President Bush’s “thumping” in the 2006 midterms to the resonance of retrenchment rhetoric from leaders ranging from Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (I-Vt.) to President Trump, it’s evident that Americans across the political spectrum want the federal government to exercise more prudence and humility when it comes to foreign conflicts.

What’s unclear is whether Congress has gotten the message. But In the coming weeks, we should find out. 

Four Members of Congress — Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Mark PocanMark William PocanCongress must end American support for Saudi war in Yemen House votes on US involvement in Yemen Democratic lawmaker has triple bypass MORE (Wis.) and Republican Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Walter Jones (N.C.) — have introduced legislation in the House to require the removal of U.S. forces from the ongoing conflict in Yemen, unless Congress votes to authorize the American involvement. The measure should be simple common sense: Under the War Powers Act of 1973, direct U.S. military involvement in an overseas conflict is supposed to require explicit congressional consent. 

ADVERTISEMENT
As Daniel Larison and Gareth Porter have reported in The American Conservative, the U.S. has been providing aerial refueling and critical intelligence to the Saudi-led belligerents in the war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. America is hardly a peripheral player in the conflict. Foreign Policy’s Paul McLeary reported that the daily bombing campaign "would not be possible without the constant presence of U.S. Air Force tanker planes refueling coalition jets.”

 

These Saudi and UAE airstrikes have been indiscriminate and amount to a leading cause of the massive civilian casualties to date. They’re part and parcel of a Saudi-designed military strategy that includes forced famine and the denial of medical aid. Amidst blockades and aerial bombardments, an estimated 800,000 Yemenis have contracted cholera. Humanitarian groups have accordingly labeled tactics in Yemen crimes against humanity.

The war may be exceedingly ugly, but it’s still hard to stop. The reasons for U.S. involvement are deeply enmeshed in the complex power politics of the Middle East—including a desire to give concessions to Saudi Arabia following an Iran nuclear deal it opposed. Congress is typically loathe to even consider interfering with the Executive Branch on highly-fraught foreign policy questions like this. 

But — for decency and to respect the Constitution — it has to.

What’s extraordinary about the Khanna-Pocan-Massie-Jones measure is that it’s set to get a vote on the House floor right away. As a “privileged resolution” under the War Power Act, the measure doesn’t require agreement from the Foreign Affairs Committee or House leadership or anyone else.

Still, establishment players in Congress will do their best to stop the measure. House Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions (R-Texas) has reportedly been looking for ways to “unprivilege” the resolution. Backers of Saudi Arabia’s Yemen War will inevitably claim that U.S. involvement is covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force — in spite of the glaring fact that Yemeni Houthis are actually fighting against al Qaeda.

In this situation, adherence to constitutional principles of limited and accountable government can advance the cause of global human rights. It’s no wonder that right and left are converging to stop illegal involvement in this war. 

Transpartisan movements for accountability on war powers go back at least a century to the debates over the Spanish-American War. Principled Republicans and Democrats joined forces to override a presidential veto and enact the War Powers Resolution in 1973. This coming vote in the House isn’t entirely about Yemen. The vote is about whether Congress is listening to the American people on matters of war and peace. It’s ultimately about whether Congress will step up to its rightful role as a coequal branch of government. 

Justin Talbot-Zorn is a Truman National Security fellow and public policy adviser working on economic and security issues. He served as legislative director to three members of Congress. Michael Ostrolenk is on the steering committee at OpenTheGovernment.org, an organization of good-government groups seeking to promote transparency in government. He is a former coalition campaign development advisor at Campaign for Liberty.