While the votes are still being counted in some districts, House Democrats are on track to have a solid majority in the 116th Congress. In a divided Congress, the incoming Democratic-led House will not be able to single-handedly pass legislation, but the Democratic majority still has the opportunity to influence U.S. foreign policy in a variety of ways. Perhaps most critically theHouse now has an opportunity to consider where and when the president can use U.S.military force. Congress has a constitutional obligation to conduct oversight of the executive, including of the president’s foreign policy decisions, but in recent years has failed to do so. To this end, one of the most important things the new House majority can do is to revive the debate around the 2001Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF.
The 2001AUMF, passed in the days after the September 11th terrorist attacks, does not include a sunset clause, meaning it effectively authorizes the president to use force against al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the world on an indefinite basis. Since 2001, the AUMF has been cited as the legal authorization for military action in 41 instances across 18 countries around the world under three different Presidential administrations, raising critical questions about the legality of the use of military force in the seeming never-ending so-called war on terror. Seventeen years later, according to an unclassified section of a report released earlier this year, the administration interprets the 2001 AUMF as providing the legal grounds for the United States to use force in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger.
Congress is legally required to conduct oversight of the United States’ use of force, but the 2001 AUMF has been interpreted by successive White House administrations as allowing the President to expand conflict to new geographical locations and groups, as long as they are tangentially related to the “war on terror.” This expansion has occurred with little Congressional oversight, as Congress has for the most part failed to conduct its duties in this regard.
However, some Democratic members of the House, led by Representative Barbara Lee, have argued that since 2001, U.S. military engagements “lack sufficient Congressional oversight regarding the United States’ use of force.” Congresswoman Lee’s efforts to repeal the AUMF since it was passed have slowly but surely gained bipartisan traction in the House each time her amendment has been re-introduced. Earlier this year, almost all of the Republicans and Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee voted to include her amendment in the defense spending bill, which would sunset the2001 AUMF after 8 months. However, Speaker Paul Ryan decided to strip the amendment from the bill before it came up for a floor vote, essentially scuttling it unilaterally.
There is alack of consensus even amongst Democrats about what should replace the currentAUMF. For example, a bill co-sponsored by Senators Tim Kaine and Bob Corker, introduced earlier this year, was roundly criticized as giving “the president a virtual blank check to expand the current war.” And even if Democrats were able to reach an agreement about replacement legislation, it would be unlikely to pass both houses anyway (or be signed into law by the president).
Nevertheless, the incoming Democratic House presents Congress with a critical opportunity to conduct oversight on the war on terror by having the debate. A DemocraticSpeaker of the House, in contrast with Speaker Ryan, is likely to allow Lee’s amendment to come up for a floor vote. The New York Times recently reported that one reason President Trump hasn’t visited American troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan is that “he considers [these missions] a waste of money and lives.” By holding a robust debate about the 2001 AUMF and the scale and scope of ongoing U.S. military engagements around the world, the Democratic-led House can shine a spotlight on his shocking dereliction of theCommander in Chief’s duty to articulate a strategy and mission worth placingAmerican service women and men in harm’s way. The new House should take this opportunity to carry out Congress’ duty to conduct oversight of U.S. foreign policy.
About the author: Alexandra Stark is the Security & Defense Fellow at Young Professionals inForeign Policy (YPFP). She is a PhD candidate in International Relations atGeorgetown University. Her dissertation research analyzes the conditions under which countries in the MENA region are likely to intervene in civil wars. She also holds an MSC from the London School of Economics and a BA from WellesleyCollege, where she was a fellow of the Albright Institute for Global Affairs.