What “Flipping the Script” on Arms Sales Looks Like
With news that the Trump administration intends to pursue another in a string of controversial arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a new opinion piece examines the role of lawmakers in the arms sales process and argues for the need to expand their statutory authority to oversee U.S. weapons transfers.
The piece, by Diana Ohlbaum, Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy at Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Rachel Stohl, Managing Director at the Stimson Center, notes that just a year ago, the President illustrated how limited Congress’ grip on the arms sales process really is by invoking a rare emergency authority to bypass the legally required congressional review process and transfer arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The sales raised serious human rights and IHL concerns, as Abu Dhabi and Riyadh continued to use American weapons in their military campaign in Yemen, which the UN once called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Now, with the administration preparing to sell an additional $500 million in munitions to Saudi Arabia, lawmakers are again sounding the alarm, pointing to continued IHL and human rights abuses by the Kingdom, as well as the contributions U.S. armaments have made to civilian casualties in Yemen. But, as the authors note, lawmakers are again at risk of having their objections overruled by an arms sales system that heavily favors approval.
Under current regulations, to block an arms sale, Congress must pass a joint resolution of disapproval, an already high bar in a deeply divided political environment. What’s more, the President still has the ability to veto the resolution, which would then require a two-thirds majority of Congress to override, something that has occurred in fewer than 10 percent of all presidential vetoes and never successfully with respect to arms sales.
However, this system that defaults to arms sales approval could be reversed by legislators. As the authors explain “Instead of trying to stop an objectionable sale, Congress could flip the script and require that sales obtain affirmative congressional approval. In the face of congressional inaction, an arms sale would be halted.”
Such a change would require the passage of a new statute from Congress and the development of a new system for review and approval. Although, the political feasibility of such a rule reversal remains limited, given a likely presidential veto, the piece points out that lawmakers would enjoy broad public support for such a move, and should see an incentive to reclaim some of their own authority over U.S. arms sales.
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