Senators change the dynamic on Saudi Arabia

By Daniel DePetris

This week, Sens. Rand Paul, Christopher Murphy, Mike Lee, and Al Franken managed to singlehandedly do something that the rest of their colleagues would much rather avoid or ignore — they forced the U.S. Senate to debate the wisdom of continuing to provide Saudi Arabia with some of America’s best weaponry, no questions asked.  

Using a procedural provision buried in the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, Paul, Murphy, Lee, and Franken filed legislation that, if enacted, would block the Obama administration’s latest defense sale to Saudi Arabia — a package worth $1.15 billion that includes over 150 M1A1 Abrams tanks and assorted enablers to ensure that the tanks keep running.  The Arms Export Control Act allows any senator to force a debate and a vote on an arms sale if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee doesn’t move on a disapproval resolution over a 10-day period.  And this is exactly what the two conservative Republicans from Kentucky and Utah and the two liberal Democrats from Connecticut and Minnesota chose to do; the Foreign Relations Committee sat on their hands and chose to do nothing, so the Senate chamber was called in to debate the measure.

The fact that the resolution, originally spearheaded by Paul and Murphy, was soundly defeated after a short debate on the floor wasn’t unexpected.  Indeed, those who follow the issue expected that the motion to block the sale of U.S. tanks to Riyadh wouldn’t pass.  While there is a growing amount of agitation as of late over Saudi Arabia’s behavior in the region from lawmakers in both the House and Senate, the U.S. Congress as a whole still considers Riyadh a valuable and irreplaceable ally in a dangerous region.  Some, like Sens. John McCain and Mitch McConnell, viewed the disapproval resolution as foolish if not provocative to a major American ally at a time when Yemen is at risk of being completely dominated by an Iranian-backed militia in the Houthis.

What matters here, however, is not that the Senate passed the measure, but that lawmakers debated the measure at all.  On arms sales and defense exports, the U.S. Congress has been a placid institution and a spectator despite the fact that both the House and the Senate are integral components in the process under the law.  Exports of defense articles on everything from air-to-ground munitions to F-16’s typically proceed without so much as a wink and a nod from America’s elected representatives — yet another troubling sign of the legislative branch deliberately standing on the sidelines instead of participating as an active player on the field.  The Obama administration has sold $115 billion of weapons and defense services to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals over the past seven and a half years, and none of those deals were scrutinized by members of Congress.  

During a discussion at the Center for the National Interest, Sen. Murphy said this trend can only be categorized as an embarrassing abdication of congressional power.  "We are, as a Congress, at risk of putting ourselves out of business of helping to set and conduct foreign policy," Murphy remarked.  Speaking at the same event, Sen. Paul was equally upset with the way Congress has been derelict:  "There is a war going on.  In Yemen, we [the U.S.] are refueling the planes that are dropping the bombs, and we have people helping to guide the missiles."  He then cut to the heart of the matter, saying that Americans "can debate...whether we should do it.  But we can't just have no debate."

And debate they did.  What Paul and Murphy have accomplished this week is a welcoming change to the cycle of laisse faire behavior towards every arms sale that the executive branch wants to finalize.  They may have lost the vote, but they forced their colleagues to stand upon front of the American people and defend why they believe selling additional weapons to Saudi Arabia at a time when Yemeni society is increasingly being destroyed is in the U.S. national security interest.  One can agree or disagree with the result of the vote, but Paul and Murphy should be given resounding applause for promoting accountable, democratic, constitutional government.    

For the benefit of the Republic's health and welfare, the legislative branch cannot be an inactive and uninterested body on foreign policy.  If Congress were to take that path, the institution would become in the words of Sen. Paul "a lapdog to an imperial presidency."  This week's debate and vote on a weapons sale to Saudi Arabia will hopefully bring Congress back to the proper role that the authors of the Constitution envisioned and demanded. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on September 23, 2016. Read more HERE.