The sale of weapons and other military equipment to our allies and friendly governments has long been an important element of American foreign and national security policy. Arms sales can enhance regional stability, aid in the fight against terrorism, support our friends and help provide jobs for American workers.
Such sales can be controversial. Therefore, before an arms transfer goes forward, Congress must approve it after weighing a number of complex issues regarding the needs of the purchasing country, the threats it faces, its human rights record, corruption, the regional balance and proliferation risks, just to name a few. For many years, Congress and successive administrations have relied on an efficient and effective system of informal consultation to consider these issues prior to the administration making a formal proposal to Congress.
Now the Obama administration is trying to scrap this proven process in favor of one that would give it the power to ram through weapons transfers without fully answering congressional questions and concerns. This could have severe implications for U.S. national security and the security of our allies, especially Israel.
This change is both unwise and unnecessary. In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton from me and the two leaders of the House - Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, and ranking member Howard L. Berman, California Democrat - we said, “The revised process overturns an informal consultative process that has been in place for decades built on trust and mutual interest. As such, it gravely undermines both.”
The “prenotification” consultations usually proceed expeditiously in both houses of Congress with bipartisan cooperation - the median committee review time in 2010 was just 21 days. This gives Congress a chance to ask questions or offer modifications to the proposed sale. Traditionally, the executive branch has not gone forward with formal notification of an arms transfer until Congress’ concerns have been addressed through consultations.
These talks often result in an arms-sale proposal that is better for American security than the original. Equally important, the informal route avoids the public wrangling over an arms sale that often can be embarrassing and damaging to our relations with the proposed recipient country. These lessons were learned in the 1970s, when interbranch contention over arms sales - especially to the Middle East - caused both branches to embrace a more cooperative process. But the Obama administration, ignoring these lessons, wants to jettison the established consultation process and simply send a formal notification to Congress when it is ready. At that point, Congress can only block a sale by passing a resolution of disapproval through both houses.
Because the president can veto such legislation, a two-thirds majority would be needed in both houses to achieve an override. In effect, the president would need the support of only a third of one house of Congress to push through a controversial arms deal opposed by the majority. This would be a major expansion of executive power over an extremely sensitive area of policy.
This could have important implications for our ally Israel, to whom we have pledged to help maintain a qualitative military edge versus its Middle East neighbors. Should Congress have doubts about a proposed sale to one of Israel’s potential adversaries, legislators would have diminished leverage to get their questions answered or to block consideration of the deal if the president is determined to force it through.
This is not an idle concern. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that the Pentagon and the State Department have not been consistent in documenting how arms sales to Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region advance U.S. foreign policy goals.
Like President Obama’s refusal to ask for congressional approval before committing U.S. forces to a war in Libya, unilaterally changing arms-sale procedures is an attempt by his administration to circumvent a check on presidential power. All presidents going back to Ronald Reagan have accepted the existing arms-sale approval process as a necessary power-sharing mechanism that clarifies U.S. arms transfers, prevents mistakes and unifies our policy. It is time for Mr. Obama to come to the same conclusion.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, is ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.