White House
Credit: The White House/Flickr

For Generation X folks like myself, the first real impeachment controversy arose because of the Boland Amendment. Named after Massachusetts Democrat Ed Boland, it was actually four amendments, attached separately to the Defense appropriations or continuing spending resolution bills of 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985, which prohibited the use of any money set aside for the CIA or Pentagon to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. The language changed a bit over time, but the gist remained the same. By 1984, Congress had become aware that the Reagan Administration was using the National Security Council to circumvent their ban, so they expanded the wording of the amendment to reflect that:

“No funds available to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement or individual.”

The Iran-Contra affair was a direct result of the administration’s efforts to get around this language. As already mentioned, the effort to oust the Sandinistas was moved into the National Security Council which had a different funding stream than the Department of Defense or the CIA. When Congress moved to ban the NSC from spending money for the Contras as well, the administration convinced the Israelis and Saudis to provide the money. In the midst of that subterfuge, they also came up with a plan to sell weapons to Iran in an effort to get them to convince Hizbollah to release American hostages held in Lebanon. But they took the money from the Teheran arms sales and sent the portion they didn’t divert into their personal Swiss bank accounts to the Contras.

No one seriously contended that this had been legal. There were the usual protestations that the president should be free to set foreign policy, but eventually it was conceded that everything had not been by the book. The question was what should be done about it. In the end, the answer was nothing. Even those who were convicted for their role in the cover-up of the affair were pardoned by President Poppy Bush on Christmas Eve 1992, just before he left office.

I’m reminded of this history when I think about the Senate’s failure to override President Trump’s veto of their prohibition on making arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the purpose of waging war in Yemen.

The Senate on Monday failed to override President Trump’s vetoes of resolutions blocking his arms deal with Saudi Arabia, marking the latest setback for critics of Riyadh.

Senators voted 45-40, 45-39 and 46-41 on the override attempts, falling well short of the two-thirds majority needed to nix Trump’s veto.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kansas), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Todd Young (Ind.) voted with Democrats to override each of the three vetoes. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who missed the first two votes, joined them to support overriding the third.

Congress was trying to exercise their authority under the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Under the provisions of the act, the administration must notify Congress of significant arms sales and provide them enough time to hold a vote of disapproval. In June 2019, President Trump ignored this requirement.

Trump in June publicly announced the arms deal, estimated to be worth more than $8 billion, using an “emergency” provision in the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) to bypass the 30-day congressional notification requirement.

The administration has argued the emergency declaration was justified based on what it described as heightened threats from Iran and said a better use of Congress’s time would be to try to help negotiate an end to the years-long Yemen civil war.

It was backed up by most Republicans, who are wary of damaging the U.S.-Saudi relationship despite frustration over the Yemen war and the death of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

While the Republicans went along with this, many were furious about how it was done.

To understand the full context here, it’s important to understand that Congress has already taken the unprecedented step of using the War Powers Act to ban further American involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

The House of Representatives voted on [April 4, 2019] to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen’s bloody civil war in a historic measure that sets the stage for a showdown between the White House and Capitol Hill over the president’s ability to wage wars without congressional approval.

It marks the first time in history that legislation invoking the 1970s-era War Powers Resolution, aimed at reasserting Congress’s role in U.S. wars abroad, passed both the House and Senate. It now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk, where most officials expect the president to veto the measure.

The vote was on a bipartisan resolution, though it largely fell on party lines, with only 16 Republicans joining Democrats in favor for a final tally of 247 to 175.

The Senate passed a coinciding resolution in March to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen by a vote of 54 to 46, well short of the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.

Of course, the veto is a legitimate and constitutional tool. President Trump wants to continue to give the Saudis weapons, just as he wants to give them nuclear technology. If Congress wants to stop this, they have to override the veto and they don’t have the votes or the will to accomplish this.

But, what if they did?

What if they overrode Trump’s veto and banned these weapons sales, and then Trump went ahead and found a way to get around the ban as Reagan did with the Contras? Would Congress actually do anything about it?

My guess is that they would not.

And let’s consider why Congress wants no further part in the civil war in Yemen.

For months, lawmakers and the Trump administration have engaged in fierce debates over whether the U.S. military should continue supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen as it fights Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The issue centers on the devastating humanitarian toll of the conflict, where nearly half the population, some 14 million people, are on the brink of famine, and some 22 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance. Yemen is now considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, due in part to a deadly bombing campaign by the Saudi coalition that has indiscriminately targeted civilians and reduced to rubble some of the developing county’s vital infrastructure.

“The death toll is mounting, and our country’s hands aren’t clean,” said Scott Paul, an expert on Yemen with the humanitarian organization Oxfam America.

It’s one thing for Congress to oppose an ongoing American role in the war and yet not be able to muster the numbers to impose their will on the executive branch. It’s another matter for them to actually impose their will, as was done in the 1980’s with respect to Nicaragua, and then have that will circumvented and ignored.

The bottom line is that Congress seems helpless to stop our involvement in wars it opposes despite its power of the purse. And that means the American people, through our representatives, are also powerless.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com