The Cable

Surprise House Vote Rolls Back Authority for the ‘War on Terror’

After 16 years, the legal basis for post-9/11 military action may finally be put to rest.

aumf

In a surprising twist, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment to repeal a sweeping 2001 law that gives the president wide-ranging authority to wage war against terrorist groups all over the world.

Republican lawmakers backed the proposal, put forth by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a rare and surprising show of bipartisanship on a controversial issue that has traditionally fallen along party lines.

The amendment would repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the legal authorization passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that gave the president the ability to battle the Taliban and associated groups. In the years since, the AUMF has been stretched to encompass war against an ever wider net of terrorist outfits, from al Qaeda and its affiliates to the Islamic State.

The vote, while only in one committee for now, could signal Congress’s increasing willingness to straitjacket the Trump administration’s ability to wage war against terrorist organizations without prior congressional approval.

“It’s a signal from Republicans they’re finally willing to talk about this,” one Democratic congressional aide said.

Aides told Foreign Policy that if it’s passed, the repeal would be a binding law, not a nonbinding resolution. From there, Congress would have to create an entirely new AUMF, which would prompt a new and full-scale debate on the wars the United States is waging now.

Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF in 2001, arguing that it gave the executive branch too much authority over when and where to wage war.

Since its passage, successive administrations have used it as a tool to kick-start new military operations without need for congressional approval or input. According to the Congressional Research Service, the AUMF has been used 37 times to justify military operations in 14 countries. It was used to start the Iraq War and the war against the Islamic State in Syria.

Many legal experts and lawmakers criticized presidents for abusing the AUMF and using it to justify military action that goes well beyond the scope of its original intended use, which was to allow for retaliation against the Taliban and al Qaeda for the attacks on New York and Washington.

Lee’s new amendment still has to go a long way before becoming law — it has to survive passage through the Senate and make it into the final defense spending bill, always a massive and hotly contested political fight in the House.

But the fact that the Republican majority passed the amendment still floored veteran congressional staffers and Democratic members of Congress.

“Being included in the committee markup is a pretty big advancement,” one Democratic congressional aide told FP.

And it wasn’t just that it happened; it was how it happened.

Everyone assumed Rep. Lee’s amendment would be rejected “out of hand,” one Democratic congressional aide told FP — all her past attempts to push this amendment through have, too.

But then-Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the deputy majority whip, stood up and surprised everyone by supporting it.

“This is something where Congress has collectively avoided taking responsibility for years,” he said. “The Constitution is awfully clear, as my friend points out, about where war-making authority resides. It resides in this body. And we’ve had leadership honestly on both sides that put off this debate again and again and again.”

“I was floored,” said one congressional aide in attendance.

Cole broke the ice for his Republican colleagues. “I feel like my world is rocked because I see these two that have very different opinions, and yet I agree with you,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah). The military has “the courage to go out and fight these wars, and they notice we don’t have the courage to debate this,” he added. “They notice that Congress doesn’t have the guts to stand up and have this debate.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) followed and said the surprise comments changed his mind. “I was going to vote, ‘No,’ but we’re debating right now. I’m going to be with you on this, and your tenacity has come through,” he told Rep. Lee.

It even seemed to surprise Lee herself:

Lee’s amendment would repeal the AUMF after 240 days. If passed, it would set a countdown clock for the Trump administration and Congress to hash out what laws should replace it — and how much leeway Congress will give to the executive branch to wage war.

Only the chair of the defense appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), spoke out against repealing the AUMF. She said it was “necessary to fight the global war on terrorism.”

“The amendment is a deal breaker and would tie the hands of the U.S. to act unilaterally or with partner nations” to fight terrorism, she said. “It cripples our ability to conduct counterterrorism operations.”

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Correction, June 29, 2017: The AUMF has been used 37 times to justify military operations. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of times it had been used as 27.  

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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