McGovern Files Major National Security Reform Bill in Congress

Peace Advocate November 2021

US Army photo
A Stryker anti-tank guided missile named General Lee lies on its side aftrer surviving a buried IED blast in Iraq in 2007. Photo courtesy of C-52 of 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team/ US Army

by Brian Garvey

On September 30th Chairman of the House Rules Committee Jim McGovern of Worcester introduced the National Security Reform and Accountability Act with Congressman Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan. 

The bill addresses three issues that are crucial for peace and justice: Reform of War Powers, Congressional oversight on weapons exports, and reforms to the president’s emergency powers. The reform of the National Emergencies Act would limit the power of the President to unilaterally levy sanctions, a tool that has increasingly been used to coerce foreign governments and punish foreign populations like Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba.

The section on war powers would more clearly define the term “hostilities” making it harder for presidents to claim that US armed forces are not engaged in hostilities, even if they are dropping bombs (as in Libya) or providing spare parts, intelligence, and maintenance services (as in the Saudi war on Yemen). It would require an affirmative vote from Congress in 60 days or funds for those hostilities would be cut. It also requires future Authorizations of Military Force to identify specific countries and groups to be targeted and they would have to be renewed after two years.

The arms export reform requires Congress to explicitly approve any foreign weapons sales over $14 million, a pittance in the world of arms sales. The United States is the largest weapons exporter in the world. Those exports make a fortune for the military-industrial complex and often destabilize the regions to which they are sent. Getting Congress on the record for these sales would be a major improvement.

The third section that deals with emergencies reform calls the question of what an emergency should be. An emergency is defined as a dangerous situation that requires immediate action, not a decades-long excuse to grab power, but that’s not how they’re used in practice. The oldest emergency still on the books dates back to the Carter Administration. When a person hears the term “national emergency” they might reasonably expect them to address natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or pandemics. This is largely not the case today.

During the Trump and Obama administrations the use of unilaterally imposed economic sanctions based on “emergencies” radically increased. It has now been proven that these types of sanctions cause serious harm to the ordinary citizens of affected countries. To drive the point home: of the 39 “national emergencies” that are currently in effect, 30 are for the purpose of imposing economic sanctions.

Similar legislation was filed in the US Senate on July 20th, The National Security Powers Act (NSPA), by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. The same trio spearheaded the 2019 effort in the Senate to pass a War Powers Resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. That effort was a success in that it led to the first passage of a War Powers Resolution in both chambers of Congress. Unfortunately it was vetoed by President Donald Trump, and failed to get the required supermajority required to override that veto.

This history led to criticism from the Yemeni Alliance Committee, Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, Yemeni Liberation Movement, CODEPINK, and Just Foreign Policy. They penned a public letter pointing out shortcomings in the NSPA’s War Powers section. They fear that focusing on this new legislation will distract the Congress from using the power they currently possess to stop US participation in the Yemen war, right now. They also listed worries about undefined terms and abandoning the “concurrent resolution” mechanism that would not require the president’s signature — though there are open legal issues surrounding a potential use of concurrent resolutions to assert Congressional war powers. For major reform to be successful it will need the full support of the peace movement. 

Members of Congress avoid taking hard votes. They’re not good for reelection campaigns. Consider how long an affirmative vote for the Iraq War AUMF in 2002 has dogged the members who supported it, and rightly so. It’s much safer to stay under the radar, and off the record, when it comes to controversial subjects, like whether our country should go to war. But voters don’t elect members of Congress to cut ribbons.  They are elected to legislate and the Constitution gives them the responsibility to decide on war and peace.  As Republican and Democratic presidents have accumulated more and more power, the Federal Government has drifted further and further from democratic republicanism and has operated as an unconstitutional imperial presidency.

The NSRAA, if passed, would force many more of these votes to be held as the United States continues to defend its worldwide empire. Massachusetts Peace Action, and the peace movement in general, has called for major, sweeping national security reforms for years.  The NSRAA will not end US imperial wars, arms sales, or sanctions.   And it doesn’t address nuclear wars, which if they ever happened, would probably begin and end long before its 60-day review period.  But by forcing Congress to openly debate and vote on each of these decisions, it would give peace loving citizens a greater opportunity to organize and influence these critical decisions before it is too late.

— Brian Garvey is assistant director of Massachusetts Peace Action and is active in the Middle East Working Group and the Raytheon Antiwar Campaign