WASHINGTON ― Top Democrats are discussing how to use their upcoming control of the House of Representatives to more tightly regulate U.S. weapons sales abroad ― a move that would shore up the party’s antiwar credentials and make it harder for President Donald Trump to continue his high-profile arms deals with countries accused of human rights violations like Saudi Arabia.
A final plan has not yet been crafted, but conversations are underway, a Democratic aide and an activist in regular contact with lawmakers told HuffPost. The final decision rests with leadership: the speaker, likely Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and a handful of figures like Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who will chair the powerful House Rules Committee and who publicly supports greater debate over the arms trade.
Trump’s executive branch is already required to inform key congressional committees of any major weapons sale 30 days before U.S. and foreign officials finalize terms. Capitol Hill can use legislation to block the deal within that period. Such a bill, even if successful, would likely be vetoed by the president and then might not win over a veto-proof majority of lawmakers ― but the general consensus is that simply initiating such a spectacle makes it harder for a sale to continue and creates pressure for it to be abandoned instead. If there’s no bill, the process automatically moves forward.
What some House members and outside groups skeptical of the defense industry want to fix is a discrepancy between the two chambers. In the Senate, any member can force the full body to vote on legislation disapproving of a sale 10 days after a notification comes to Congress if the foreign relations committee has not acted on it. Democrats have used that power repeatedly in dramatic votes over U.S. weapons shipments for a controversial Saudi military campaign in Yemen, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has deployed it to force debates that draw attention to his libertarian views on foreign policy.
But in the House, members who introduce similar bills could see them get referred to the foreign affairs committee and then simply never make it to a full floor vote. Critics of the arms trade say this lets lawmakers avoid accountability for deals that can allow weapons buyers to commit war crimes, and that allow the defense industry to reap huge profits off research largely funded by the U.S. taxpayer.
“I’m for any more oversight we can add to this process to make sure that the American people’s interests are being represented,” said Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight, which endorsed a September proposal from McGovern and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) that would recreate the Senate procedure in the House. Such a bill has almost no chance of becoming law under Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate, but it signaled a desire among Democrats that party leaders can act on by enshrining, in their rules for the new House session, the right of any member to demand a floor debate on an arms deal.
Opposition to arms sales is generally seen as a human rights issue, but Grazier pointed to another concern he wants to see raised if there are more debates over such deals: the waivers often involved that effectively mean the trade is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.
The development and production of American weapons technology by huge firms like Lockheed Martin and Boeing involves massive support paid for by the U.S. government in the form of testing and research assistance. That’s seen as justified since the government is ultimately the top customer for those companies. Foreign buyers, however, are legally mandated to pay those costs back ― unless the State and Defense departments agree to provide waivers for those costs by saying that forcing a payment would threaten foreign alliances or the specific deal. Over the last five years, such waivers have cost the U.S. close to $16 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office, while private companies and other governments have been able to protect their bottom lines.
More discussion of the arms trade could also involve more honest conversations about whether it really creates jobs the way Trump says. Experts like William Hartung of the Center for International Policy are doubtful, citing the requirements in many deals to produce in foreign countries and the likelihood that workers in the industry could be more productive in other fields.
And without the risk of bills questioning arms sales getting trapped in the foreign affairs committee, where members are particularly susceptible to administration arguments about diplomatic caution and especially deluged with foreign lobbying, activists believe they would gain an advantage.
Proponents of the change know it is no panacea, and indeed not even a certainty. Democratic leaders could still turn against it for any number of reasons. The aide mentioned that some veteran lawmakers are wary of allowing any member of the 435-person House to take the step, worried that it could disrupt order when other urgent issues need to be tackled.
Defense lobbyists and those working for other governments are also likely to fight the potential change tooth and nail, focusing on blocking the proposal from becoming reality and working with allies in the Pentagon and the White House. They likely see an opportunity in the fact that some of the most high-profile new Democratic lawmakers who have gained respect for having flipped seats have backgrounds in national security and may be especially willing to talk about maintaining U.S. dominance in the international weapons business.
Meanwhile, the policy wouldn’t hinder other hawkish moves by Trump, like providing intelligence support for the Saudis in Yemen or ratcheting up tension with Iran.
But advocates are generally hopeful, citing the many ways Democrats can now expand their influence over war and peace. Just last week, Republicans made continuing the U.S. military role in Yemen their first priority of the lame duck session, handily defeating a Democrat-backed bill. That’s the kind of action that will now, presumably, be a thing of the past.
“A Democratic House will make a big difference,” Hartung said.