Yesterday, three senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Republican Mike Lee of Utah, introduced the National Security Powers Act, a bill that attempts to reclaim authority over the president’s largely unchallenged power to initiate conflict, declare national emergencies, and enforce US sanctions regimes around the world. It comes as Congress continues an effort to repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs), both of which relate to Iraq.
The legislation would reform three major foreign policy areas: the War Powers Resolution, presidential authority over US weapons sales, and the executive branch’s emergency powers, which include the use of sanctions. Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who has long advocated for reforming war powers, is taking the lead on similar legislation in the House.
“The founders envisioned a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government on national security matters,” Senator Murphy said in a statement. “But over time, Congress has acquiesced to the growing, often unchecked power of the executive to determine the outline of America’s footprint in the world. More than ever before, presidents are sending men and women into battle without public debate, and making major policy decisions, like massive arms sales, without congressional input.”
The legislation would replace the 1973 War Powers Resolution with a new policy that has stronger reporting requirements and better-defined terms. The 60-day period that presidents are given to operate without congressional authorization under the War Powers Resolution would be shortened to 20 days; all existing AUMFs would be wiped out; and new requirements for future AUMFs would be set. It would also revise the Arms Export Control Act, requiring an affirmative vote in Congress to approve certain US sales of sophisticated weapons systems or weapons that reach a certain monetary threshold. At present, arms sales typically go through seamlessly, unless there’s a veto-proof majority in both chambers within 30 days. Members of Congress only ever weigh in if there’s a resolution of disapproval, like the one Senator Sanders recently introduced to try to halt the US sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel by the Biden administration. The bill would similarly require Congress to approve a national emergency declaration, and provide specific emergency powers within 30 days. If any of these activities aren’t authorized by Congress, funding would automatically be cut off by a specific deadline.
This isn’t the first time the bipartisan trio of senators has confronted the Executive Branch’s imperial policies abroad, or tried to reclaim congressional authority in national security decision-making. Sanders, Murphy, and Lee teamed up in 2018 on legislation designed to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives and resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Their joint resolution, which passed with a 56 to 41 vote, marked the first time the Senate had ever used powers granted under the War Powers Act of 1973. (Ironically, Joe Biden signed on as a cosponsor of the War Powers Act during his first term in the Senate, before going on to defend US military action that bypassed the law he supported.) Aspects of the bill are based on Senator Lee’s ARTICLE ONE Act, which deals with the National Emergencies Act but only garnered Republican support. But it’s unclear whether the National Security Powers Act has a path forward on the floor, according to Senate aides familiar with the bill, as lawmakers were in the “initial phase” of talks with Democratic leaders.
One of the most consequential aspects of the proposed reform is what it would mean for US sanctions policy. The law that gives presidents the broad power to impose economic sanctions on countries, individuals, or other entities—the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)—is among the presidential emergency powers in question, as it falls under the National Emergencies Act.
IEEPA grants the president expansive economic powers to deal with any “unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States, to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.” It forms the legal basis for most US sanctions programs. Congress originally passed IEEPA and the National Emergencies Act after Watergate and the Vietnam War, as part of an attempt to restrain executive powers. Since then, these laws have had the exact opposite effect. US presidents have been able to use a destructive economic weapon—killing and starving entire populations, wrecking economies for generations—with virtually no oversight. Sixty-five of the 71 national emergencies declared under the National Emergencies Act used IEEPA, and some of these sanctions, going as far back to the 1970s, are still active today. The Sanders-Murphy-Lee bill would require the renewal of emergencies to be approved by Congress after one year, and impose a five-year limit on states of emergency.
Last year, Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar unveiled legislation to try to tackle the issue, ensuring congressional oversight over the use of sanctions by the executive branch through periodic assessments on the impacts of the sanctions and other checks on the president’s emergency powers. Her bill would automatically limit initial use of IEEPA powers to 60 days and later require Congress to vote to reapprove sanctions every six months, among other changes—a move that progressive foreign policy groups say would save lives abroad.
Reining in IEEPA powers is necessary, said one congressional staffer (who requested anonymity), because “members of Congress are not making informed decisions on sanctions. We’re not really looking at whether the tool works or not or what the actual impacts are.”
“Part of the point of doing more significant IEEPA reforms, including it in a bill like this, is to sort of force members to think more deeply about what policy it is that they’re proposing,” the staffer continued. “But as it is, you see it constantly. It’s like, there’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang or in Hong Kong. we must sanction it. Russia is building a pipeline in Europe we don’t like. We must sanction it. Turkey invaded Syria—we must sanction everybody involved. And that all happens as this sort of knee-jerk, feel good ‘we-gotta-do-something-and-we-don’t-wanna-invade, so sanctions is doing something.’”
Sanctions have become a more prominent policy debate within the left wing of the Democratic Party in recent years. But there’s a split between those who want to streamline the procedure, merely tweaking the way this economic weapon is wielded, and a growing coalition of policy-makers, progressives, and think tanks across the spectrum who say sanctions, even targeted ones, should be harder to use and maintain.
Despite the growing momentum around sanctions policy, Biden has refused to lift many of the Trump administration’s brutal sanctions, largely sticking to his Republican predecessor’s approach. Administration officials say they’re planning to overhaul their sanctions strategy, as the Treasury Department wraps up its review of US sanctions programs, offering the left a glimmer of hope. But only a glimmer. New sanctions are still being implemented on a regular basis, and Biden won’t budge on Trump-era sanctions he could easily rescind, like the ones strangling Cuba’s economy.
“People are not at all convinced that those are broken and need fixing,” the staffer added, ”and then you have the persistent problem in all of these cases that members of Congress don’t want to take tough votes.”