Last month, Congress unexpectedly took action to force a debate on a new legal basis for the United States’ wars overseas — delighting lawmakers on both sides who had been pushing for it for years.
If it seemed like it was too good to last, it was. This week, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives moved to strip from the annual defense spending bill an amendment, filed by California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, that would have forced Congress to consider a new authorization of military force.
In June, Lee’s amendment was approved, with bipartisan support, by the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over defense spending. The language was simple: it stated the current authorization of military force — which has been used since September 11 to justify U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere — would end 240 days after the amendment’s enactment.
That would give Congress time to debate new parameters to set the boundaries for U.S. military operation against current foes like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and now, under President Trump, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The AUMF amendment’s inclusion in the broader defense spending bill was welcomed by Democrats and Republicans alike within the Minnesota delegation. They believe it is high time that the 9/11 AUMF, used to justify U.S. military action abroad for 16 years, be subjected to a congressional debate, whether it is scrapped, modified, or maintained.
This represented the closest Congress had gotten in years to meaningful progress on military force authorization. Though the amendment earned bipartisan support in committee, there were concerns that GOP leadership could give it the ax if it wanted.
Speaker Paul Ryan met with Lee last week to discuss her amendment; the California Democrat later told Politico that she believed Ryan would try to substitute it with a more watered-down amendment that would require the Department of Defense to specify what it wanted from Congress in any new AUMF.
Lee’s prediction was correct: that amendment, sponsored by Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole, replaced hers in the defense spending bill. On Tuesday night, Lee tweeted that Ryan stripped her amendment from the bill “in the dead of night,” and called the move “under-handed and undemocratic.” Typically, amendment changes such as this are voted upon by the House Rules Committee; Lee says that House leadership bypassed the committee to excise her amendment.
Ryan’s office defended the move by discrediting Lee’s amendment as irresponsible, and claiming it would have stranded U.S. servicemembers without an authorization to fight terrorists. The Speaker’s move also spares Trump from having to make a tough decision: accept legislation that limits his executive power by revoking a sweeping military authorization, or veto legislation that funds the military.
After the news circulated around Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Minnesotan supporters of a new debate on military force expressed their displeasure at what had transpired.
Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum, who serves on the Appropriations Committee that originally passed Lee’s amendment, said its removal was outrageous. “It passed in the committee and it had bipartisan support coming out of the committee,” she said, adding that “removing [it] from the bill without a vote is nothing but a cynical attempt to stop Congress from fulfilling its Constitutional responsibilities.”
First District Rep. Tim Walz, the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ panel, said that Ryan’s use of “a technical move out of rules to strip something out on face value is just wrong, and especially on this issue… We need this discussion and debate.”
Walz predicted that the way the amendment was killed may backfire, and add to the momentum for a debate on how and when the U.S. can exercise military force abroad.
“I think by doing this, they may have delayed it for just a moment,” he said. “Ironically enough, it’s gonna force the issue even harder.”