Congress tries to constrain Presidential nuclear war powers
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.