While partisan polarization in Congress has reached the highest levels in American history, an unlikely bipartisan alliance on foreign policy is beginning to take shape and have an impact on Capitol Hill.
In recent years, progressive Democratic lawmakers and libertarian-leaning conservatives have begun to team up in an effort to reassert the role of Congress in foreign policy and advocate restraint in matters of war and peace.
Republican representatives like Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Ken Buck and Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna are amongst those seeking to play a greater role in shaping U.S. foreign policy from the legislature.
While prior proposals from these officials – like a 2017 resolution from Paul and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy to block an arms sale to Saudi Arabia – have failed, there are signs that the alliance is beginning to have an impact and could be a force to be reckoned with in the near future.
On Wednesday evening, House Republican leaders denied a vote on a resolution from Khanna seeking to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen by attaching the resolution to a separate vote about hunting wolves.
“They said if you wanted to hunt wolves – if you wanted to be for the hunting of wolves – then vote yes. And at the same time, you’re going to de-privilege this resolution,” Khanna told reporters at a foreign policy conference sponsored by the American Conservative Thursday.
Khanna pointed out that 15 Republican Congressmen broke from leadership and opposed the measure. He argued Republican leaders knew that his resolution would likely pass if a vote were allowed, forcing them to resort to a coy legislative trick.
“They know the public opinion – even in their own body – is changing and they didn’t allow us to have a fair vote,” Khanna told Democracy Now Thursday. “This is why people hate Congress … We’ve never seen those kinds of shenanigans with a war powers resolution.”
It’s shameful that @SpeakerRyan and House Republicans denied Congress the chance to do our constitutional duty while millions of lives are at stake in Yemen. History will remember this abdication of duty. pic.twitter.com/HwURmGwjk3
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) November 14, 2018
According to Khanna, the leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on his resolution is indicative of a broader failure from lawmakers to carry out their constitutional duty related to war powers.
“They’re not just hurting children in Yemen, they’re undermining their own role as members of Congress,” he said.
Article 1 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Despite engaging in dozens of armed conflicts since World War II, Congress has not declared war since then, allowing the executive branch to decide where and when the U.S. military engages in conflicts.
Today, U.S. forces are engaged to some degree – directly or indirectly – in wars in countries ranging from Afghanistan and Syria to Somalia and Niger.
Congress has not directly authorized American involvement in any of these conflicts.
Instead, presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have relied on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force – a vague resolution giving the president authority to use military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and any “associated forces” – to justify U.S. involvement in the conflicts.
But representatives from both parties like Khanna and Paul have been increasingly critical of their colleagues for not doing more and abdicating their responsibility to decide when the U.S. goes to war.
“I remind [my colleagues] of what [James] Madison said … that the executive branch is most prone to war and therefore, with studied care, we vested that power in the legislature,” Paul said during remarks at the American Conservative conference Thursday.
“Most of the power has been voluntarily given up to the president. But there is a resurgence and there is a bit of a right-left coming together on this.”
Also speaking at the American Conservative conference, Congressman Buck called out the leadership of his own party for backing away from making tough but important decisions on foreign policy.
“The problem is that the Republicans over the last four years, while I’ve been in Congress, were more concerned about keeping the majority and avoiding tough votes,” he said.
Paul criticized the leadership of both parties for being increasingly hawkish on other matters of foreign policy, such as sanctions against countries like Iran and Russia.
“You look at the foreign relations committee – the Republicans are hardliners. You look at the top people on the Democratic side – they’re hardliners,” Paul said. “If you go down the seniority chain, you get some more realistic views on both sides.”
Paul expressed optimism that the next Congress – which will be seated on January 3 – will have greater success exerting influence on foreign policy, saying the growing bipartisan cooperation “leaves room for encouragement.”
And while Khanna’s resolution on the war in Yemen will not get a vote before the new Congress is seated, he said he is hopeful that Paul will take up the matter in the Senate with Democrats like Sanders before then.