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Congress tries to constrain Presidential nuclear war powers

Posted by Martin Fleck on November 17, 2017

Have you contacted your U.S. Representative or Senator lately? Members of Congress are responding to constituents who have been asking them to reduce the risk of nuclear war. They have introduced bills asserting that only Congress can authorize war, and that the United States should establish a "no first-use" policy for nuclear weapons. When Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) convened a November 14 public hearing on "presidential authority over nuclear weapons," 15 senators attended and the gallery was packed.

The three witnesses at the hearing clarified that the decision to use American nuclear weapons is up to the president, and the president alone. There are no checks or balances—the president does not require approval from anyone. So long as any president's launch order is legal, the military apparatus is obligated to carry it out. This may come as a surprise to many Americans: a September, 2017 NPR/Ipsos poll indicated that 76% of Americans thought the president had to secure approval from Congress, the Secretary of Defense, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Alas, no.

Furthermore, U.S. policy does not preclude launching a nuclear surprise attack. In 2016, at the urging of PSR and allied groups, the Obama Administration seriously considered adopting a "no first-use" policy regarding nuclear weapons, but they ultimately left the policy unchanged.

At the Senate hearing, Senator Chris Murphy, (D-Conn, pictured) probably spoke for many in the room when he said: 

"We are concerned that the President of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, and has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests. So let's just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment and the discussion that we're having today."

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said:

"There may be plans in place, right now, at the White House, to launch a preemptive war with North Korea using nuclear weapons—without consulting Congress. No one human being should ever have the power."

Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) said:

"As of late I've been getting more and more questions about, 'can the President really order a nuclear attack without any controls?' That question is asked more and more by the American people...I would like to be able to tell my constituents and the American people we have a system in place that prevents an impulsive and irrational decision to use nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, I cannot make those assurances today."

PSR members have been doing their part: Chesapeake PSR President Gwen DuBois, MD led a delegation of Marylanders to meet with Cardin's chief foreign policy advisor on October 25.

Several U.S. Representatives and Senators have responded to these constituent concerns with legislation on nuclear weapons policy:

  • Senator Markey and Representative Ted Lieu introduced legislation in 2016—and again in 2017—to assert that Congress must authorize any "first-use" of nuclear weapons (as opposed to retaliatory use.) This is the "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act," and it now has 73 sponsors in the House and 14 in the Senate. 
  • Representative John Conyers (D-MI) together with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced a bill to address the danger of a sudden attack on North Korea. Their bill reasserts that only Congress can declare war. This is the "No Unconstitutional Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017," which has attracted 61 sponsors in the House. 
  • Senator Murphy introduced a nearly identical bill, called the "Preventing Preemptive War in North Korea Act of 2017," which has garnered 9 Senate sponsors. Click here to urge your Senators to prevent a war with North Korea.
  • And finally, on November 15, House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced an elegantly simple, one page bill: "It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first."

PSR supports all of this legislation and urges you to contact your members of Congress about these bills. Meanwhile, PSR and our international allies seek a much more comprehensive answer to nuclear weapons dangers—one that addresses the catastrophic humanitarian impacts of any use of nuclear weapons anywhere. The United States must work with the other eight nuclear-armed states toward an agreement to completely eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide. Stay tuned: PSR will be promoting this throughout 2018 and beyond.


Johanna Meara said ..

Due to the horrendous consequences should nuclear weapons be unleashed, no one human being should have the power to command its use. Even the presence of such weapons threatens the entire world!

November 22, 2017
Evelyn said ..

It's right there in the Constitution, people. Congress is the only entity who can start a war. Dump trump!

November 22, 2017
Dale Dewar said ..

No one should have the ability to launch a nuclear weapon - no one and that includes the United States government. But given the limited jurisdictional changes that we can hope for, let's make sure that the president can't do it all by himself.

November 22, 2017
Larry Rose said ..

Trump should no thave the power to order a launch of nuclear weapons. Congress must have the deciding power.

November 21, 2017
Laurie LaGoe said ..

War is such a waste! The military-industrial complex is the biggest example of corporate welfare. I resent paying for war with my tax money. Nuclear weapons as well as power comes from Uranium. That is another extractive industry.

November 21, 2017
Gordon Parker III said ..

Nuclear weapons must not be launchable by fewer than five people.

November 21, 2017
Larry Johnson said ..

Need legislation to restrain the president's power to declare nuclear strikes

November 21, 2017
Richard B. Blakney, MPH said ..

Our president must not have sole authority to launch any nuclear weapon.

November 21, 2017
Joan Shaw said ..

No one person should be allowed to make the decision to use nuclear force or declare any war. It has to be by vote of Congress! And Congress better be acting in the best interest of its constituents and all mankind!

November 21, 2017
Anonymous said ..

Bipartisanship is encouraging. The task remains: --no first use --congress required for any use --elimination of nuclear weapons

November 21, 2017
John Comella said ..

There MUST be stronger restrictions on the first use of a nuclear bomb. The president must NOT be able to initiate the use of a nuclear bomb by himself. He must have a majority vote by BOTH houses of Congress. THIS IS IMPORTANT!

November 21, 2017
Janet hitti said ..

Yes keeping working to rid the world of nuclear weapons

November 21, 2017

Comments closed.