President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington.

President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington. AP / Evan Vucci

Congress Needs a Veto, Not a Notification, on Arms Sales

The Trump administration’s efforts to evade oversight show why more is needed.

Though there is no shortage of examples of President Trump’s contempt for the authority of Congress, his administration's efforts to dismantle congressional oversight over U.S. arms sales are especially troubling. 

In May 2019, the President rammed through a sale of munitions and other arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, using a provision in the Arms Export Control Act meant to be reserved for emergencies. His administration did so despite bipartisan opposition to the sale and the clear contributions that U.S.-supplied weapons were making to civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war. Congress rallied to vote down the sales, but its actions were vetoed by the president.

Now, more than a year after that sale — which elicited an inspector general’s investigation of potential improper influence — the Trump administration is poised to take another step towards thwarting Congressional oversight by eliminating a longstanding component of the U.S. arms sales process: early notification of pending deals. 

Tragic though these actions have been, they have served a useful purpose. They have thrown into sharp relief the degree to which congressional authority over arms sales is largely dependent on norms that can easily be evaded by a determined President, and how weak Congress's legally enshrined authority really is. 

The move to eliminate pre-notification is simply the latest iteration of the Trump administration's three-year effort to undermine Congressional oversight in the arms sales process. Earlier this year, the Trump administration moved the regulation of exports of certain firearms and firearms accessories from oversight by the State Department to the purview of the Department of Commerce, which eliminated any notification of these gun exports to Congress. In effect, the Trump administration has been determined to undermine, if not eliminate, the role lawmakers play in overseeing America’s arms exports. 

It is a troubling development. Lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, have helped moderate the risks of U.S. arms exports. On a number of key occasions, they have obstructed sales to abusers of human rights and international humanitarian law and provided the public their only window into the otherwise opaque world of the U.S. weapons trade. The role of Congress in the process is essential, worthy of being safeguarded and expanded. 

To be sure, lawmakers themselves are not without blame for the billions in American arms that have made their way to distant battlefields or have contributed to civilian harm. Many have bought into the fallacious claims of the economic benefits, have caved in to the powerful arms lobby, or have simply written off the risks these transfers pose to national security and international human rights practices. 

Nevertheless, Congress provides an important bulwark against any administration’s inclination to make sacrifices of American values for the momentary expedience of an arms sale. Fortunately, the president’s disregard for Congressional oversight has raised awareness of the arms trade issue, eliciting rare bipartisan pushback and providing an opportunity for lawmakers to take a stand to protect their own authority. Preserving the pre-notification process, flawed though it may be, is just a starting point. As was illustrated with last year’s emergency declaration, the barriers to the ability of Congress to block arms sales are far too high. Ultimately, to increase Congress’s role in the oversight of American arms sales, lawmakers need to “flip the script” on arms sales approval. Doing so would mean requiring a Congressional vote to approve certain major sales before they go forward, rather than a vote of disapproval that could require the ability to override a presidential veto.

It’s long past time to strengthen the hand of Congress in crucial decisions on whether to provide weapons of war to foreign military forces. Too often, these sales can fuel internal repression, as in the Philippines, or enable mass slaughter, as in the Saudi war in Yemen. Outcomes of this kind are devastating to those on the receiving end of U.S. arms, even as they undermine U.S. security by destabilizing key regions and bolstering repressive regimes. We need new oversight mechanisms to give Congress an equal role in these life and death decisions.