Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, his words continue to ring true. A quintessential example is the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, which is comprised of approximately 7,000 warheads, each weapon many more times powerful than the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
About 1,500 of these warheads are actively deployed, even though the Joint Chiefs of Staff says we could get away with far fewer weapons without harming deterrence.
The existence of a bloated nuclear arsenal is problematic. But even more worrisome is the current policy in place for authorizing a nuclear strike.
Legally, the president of the United States has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, even if another country has not fired them at us first. This means that President Trump, or any of his successors, could simply wake up tomorrow and order a nuclear attack. Congress couldn’t stop him.
The Supreme Court wouldn’t be able to block the order either. In theory, the military officers in charge of implementing the order could reject it, but such a refusal is highly unlikely and would amount to mutiny.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on democratic institutions. We fought a war of independence against a king to ultimately establish a system resting on checks and balances. Our Constitution meticulously separates power to avoid any one person or entity having complete control.
But when it comes to launching the most powerful tools of destruction in the history of mankind, the United States is an absolute monarchy.
Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution specifically grants the United States Congress the power to declare war. By any measure, initiating a nuclear strike, with the ability of just one weapon to annihilate an entire population center, amounts to an act of warfare.
It is time for Congress to formally retain its war-making prerogative. Senator Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyWarren, Bush offer bill to give HHS power to impose eviction moratorium Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Six Democrats blast Energy Department's uranium reserve pitch MORE (D-Mass.) and Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) recently introduced a bill that would bring democracy to nuclear weapons policy.
If passed, Congress would have to issue a declaration of war before the president can initiate a nuclear first-strike. This sensible bill respects the delegated powers of Congress and vastly reduces the risk of serious nuclear miscalculation or accident. It deserves broad support and should become law as soon as possible.
Importantly, the concern is not partisan. The bill was first introduced in September 2016, at a time when a Democrat controlled the Oval Office and the Democratic candidate was widely considered to be the clear frontrunner for the presidency.
Still, critics may argue that granting Congress nuclear authority creates serious uncertainty. If the United States is under nuclear attack, what if Congress is not in session? Even so, could the legislative body vote quickly enough before Washington is lost? T
hese are valid points — and the Markey-Lieu bill answers them in full. If the legislation passes, the President will still have the power to unilaterally order an attack, but only if an enemy has certifiably launched a nuclear strike against the United States. In all other scenarios, Congress must voice its approval.
Numerous national security leaders — from former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE to former Secretary of Defense William Perry to former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright — have noted that there are few, if any, conceivable scenarios where the United States would be forced to launch a nuclear weapon first.
But even if such a decision was necessary, it should be done with the support of our democratic institutions. One person, no matter who it is, should never have the singular authority to end civilization on a whim.
Former Congressman John Tierney represented Massachusetts’ sixth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 years. He currently serves as Executive Director of Council for a Livable World, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization that promotes policies to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons and to minimize the risk of war.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.