Regarding arms deals, Congress needs to get back in the game

By Daniel DePetris

The civil war in Yemen reached a grim milestone this week when Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N.'s resident humanitarian coordinator, spoke to reporters in Sana'a and released new figures that point to an immense, but ongoing tragedy in that country. At least 10,000 people, McGoldrick reported, have been killed in Yemen since the war escalated when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began a bombing campaign against the Houthi rebellion in March 2015.  

The figure is a dramatic jump from the U.N.'s previous estimate of roughly 6,000 deaths, but is very likely to be a conservative guess. "The figures we have are probably incomplete because we take the numbers from functioning health services, and in some of these areas there are no functioning health services," McGoldrick said. "People get killed or die and are actually buried before they are recorded, and we don't have a way of recording that."

While 10,000 fatalities may sound like a disturbing number at first glance, it is quite low when one takes into account how ferocious and indiscriminate the Saudi air campaign has been over the past year and a half and how inhumane Houthi militiamen have fought the war.  

While the Obama administration is loath to acknowledge it in public, unconditional U.S. military and intelligence support for the Saudi operation in Yemen has contributed to the deaths and the country's humanitarian misery.  Major weapons agreements to the Saudis like the November 2015 sale of $1.29 billion in air-to-ground munitions are the kinds of deals that permit Riyadh to sustain their military operation in Yemen over the last eighteen months.  Unfortunately, these same weapons sales have had- and continue to have- a terrible impact on Yemen's civilian population. Innocent men, women, and children who have no role in the conflict whatsoever are often killed from U.S.-manufactured bombs dropped by U.S.-sold platforms, which are flying in the air thanks to mid-air refueling conducted by U.S. aircraft.

Thankfully, the Arms Export Control Act that governs the sale and transfer of U.S. weapons systems, ammunition, and spare parts to foreign countries has a provision in the law that provides the U.S. Congress with an opportunity to block a sale from going through.  Any member of Congress can introduce a resolution blocking a weapons sale within 30 days of the President notifying Congress of a prospective deal in the works.  And any member of Congress can ensure that this resolution gets a debate and vote on the floor of the House or Senate through a discharge position, which automatically brings up the legislation if the Foreign Relations or Foreign Affairs Committees haven't acted after 10 days. 

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky used this discharge maneuver to force his Senate colleagues to debate the wisdom of selling F-15 aircraft to Pakistan earlier this year. His effort failed, but Paul was able to singlehandedly coerce the Senate into performing its oversight responsibility.    

A $1.15 billion sale of M1A1 Abrams tanks to the Saudis that was sent to Congress in early August is yet another opportunity for lawmakers who believe in congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy to exhibit that oversight.  64 members of the House have written a bipartisan letter to the White House asking President Obama to delay any transfer of U.S. weapons systems to Riyadh until Congress is back in session and able to scrutinize the sale more closely.

"We are concerned," the letter reads, "that the timing of this notification during the August congressional recess could be interpreted to mean that Congress has little time to consider the arms deal when it returns from recess within the 30 day window established by law.” It is therefore incumbent on the White House to delay the sale until Congress is back in town after Labor Day.

Whether or not the White House decides to work with Congress by extending the review process is uncertain. Technically, the executive branch has followed the law by simply notifying Congress that the administration intends to proceed with an agreement with the Saudis. What 64 House members are asking for is the White House to go the extra mile and provide the time they need to fulfill their duties under the Arms Export Control Act.  

The White House's final decision on this matter should not discount the mere existence of the letter and the bipartisan list of lawmakers who chose to sign it.  During the past three decades, Congress has only successfully passed a resolution blocking an arms deal with a foreign nation once- a vote that was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan at the time and sustained by razor-thin margins. 

When the President and Secretary of State attempt to sell weapons to a foreign nation, the agreement is typically approved without much (if any) opposition from Congress. What the joint letter on the latest sale to Riyadh tells us, however, is a minority of Republicans and Democrats in the House—joined by Rand Paul and Chris Murphy in the Senate—want Congress to become a far more aggressive player in the conservation. 

It's a development that will hopefully expand to the majority of their colleagues and one that the American people should encourage.  As Sen. Murphy has said, "Congress needs to get back in the game."  

Daniel DePetris ia a fellow at Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on September 8, 2016. Read more HERE