Just before Memorial Day, the House passed its initial version of the bloated annual National Defense Authorization Act—the main military policy bill that Congress approves every year.
The House adopted several proposed improvements that FCNL backed, but unfortunately the House majority rejected attempts to roll back the bill’s misguided support for new nuclear weapons.
The Senate now takes it turn. FCNL opposes the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of this legislation that would eliminate a long-standing congressional oversight mechanism for dangerous new, “more usable” lower yield nuclear weapons. As a matter of faith, our Quaker community doesn’t support any expansion of military policy. As a matter of public policy, we are particularly concerned that the Senate leadership – as they have in the past – will restrict debate on the many important policy decisions in this legislation. The American people deserve a full and open debate and on-the-record votes on amendments that matter.
Useful, if Modest, Improvements
Nothing in the defense bill itself can be read to be an authorization for war with Iran or North Korea.
While there’s a lot not to like, the House did make some positive changes to its military policy bill. For starters, the House passed amendments making clear that nothing in the defense bill itself can be read to be an authorization for war with Iran or North Korea. These are helpful clarifications—but keep in mind that the executive branch just released a justification for its April 2018 Syria missile strikes that propounds an expansive view of inherent presidential power for waging war. (That is why FCNL is working to expressly limit the president’s authority to launch against North Korea.) The House also sensibly asked for a report from the executive branch on repatriating American service member remains from North Korea and carrying out Korean-American family reunifications.
The House also passed an amendment to require the Department of Defense to tell Congress exactly how ready every department and agency in the military is in preparing for an audit. Another passed amendment would better account for spending out of the Overseas Contingency Operations—the slush fund Congress uses to push military spending way above already sky-high budget caps. And yet another House-approved change would require the Pentagon to honestly estimate the long-term follow-on costs that supposed contingency actions would necessitate in later years.
Work Still to Do
FCNL backed several other needed changes that majorities in the House rejected. The Senate should not make the same mistakes.
This misguided logic only makes it more likely these nukes would actually be used.
The House rejected an amendment to hold back some of the Trump administration’s funding request for a new “lower-yield” sub-launched ballistic missile warhead (see how your representative voted), as FCNL and 21 other organizations urged the Senate to do last month. The Trump administration is seeking these warheads for the explicit goal of making a nuclear strike somehow more palatable to this and future presidents. This misguided logic only makes it more likely these nukes would actually be used and a larger nuclear war would actually start.
Meanwhile, the House also rejected an amendment (see the vote) that would force the Pentagon to estimate a full 20 years of lifecycle costs for planned nuclear weapons. (Nuclear weapons systems generally have long service lives, so it only makes sense to judge the full costs when deciding whether to build them now.)
The Senate should reject the Armed Services Committee’s proposal to unwind a long-standing congressional oversight mechanism that forces Congress to explicitly back a low-yield “useable” nuke proposal before moving ahead. Supporters of building a new low-yield sub-launched nuclear warhead apparently fear the political cost of explicitly having to authorize such new warheads each time the Pentagon proposes them. If new low-yield nukes are such good ideas, why are their backers nervous about requiring to an up-or-down congressional vote to move ahead with them?
The House defense policy bill got better but still fell short in many respects. The Senate has a chance to bring a little common sense back into the process. It must seize it.