WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks on the House floor in support of H.J.Res 37, a war powers resolution on United States involvement in Yemen, which passed the House:
“For years, under Administrations of both parties, the Congress has handed away our authority—and abrogated our responsibility—when it comes to foreign policy, particularly the questions of how and where our military is engaged around the world.
“Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to declare war. Yet we’ve given Presidents of both parties a virtual blank check to send our brave servicemembers into harm’s way while we’ve stood on the sidelines.
“With the measure we’re considering today, we take some of that power back. And we do so to restore a sense of American values and American leadership to the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world.
“For the last few years, we’ve all seen horrific images of the civilian casualties in the Yemen war—starving children, millions displaced, outbreaks of deadly disease.
“Eighty-five thousand children have starved to death. Fourteen million are on the brink of famine. More than a million suffer from cholera. And the ongoing military operations are bringing us no closer to a resolution. The only way out of this mess is for parties to sit down and work toward a political solution. The United States can and should play a role pushing for that solution, pushing parties to make a commitment to negotiations.
“This measure, introduced by Mr. Khanna, will help us do exactly that.
“Let me explain why this is so important, and why I support passing this resolution right now.
“In the last few years, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out 18,000 airstrikes. A full one third of those strikes hit non-military targets. This is absolutely reckless.
“I’m not naïve, Madam Chair. I know we have critical strategic interests in that region. The Houthis are a problem. They get support from Iran. They launch missiles into Saudi territory and international waterways, threatening Saudi civilians as well as American personnel. They are starving the Yemeni people, diverting assistance, and holding civilians hostage to their political demands.
“But we cannot just give the coalition a blank check when so many innocent lives are being lost. And if the Administration won’t demand any sort of accountability from the Saudis and Emiratis, it’s time for Congress to act.
“I want to acknowledge my friend from Texas, the Ranking Member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. McCaul. I believe that he also wants to see Congress reclaim our prerogatives on foreign policy, though I understand we have an honest difference of opinion on the approach we’re dealing with today.
“I’m glad that we moved this measure through regular order, that we had a hearing with experts and a markup, and that the gentleman from Texas and I could make our cases before the Rules Committee. It allowed me to hear the arguments from all perspectives on this issue.
“And I think during this debate, we’ll hear my friends on the other side call this resolution ‘misguided.’
“I think because this resolution has to do with our security agreements with the Saudis and Emiratis, we’ll hear them question what impact this may have on other security agreements.
“It’s a fair question, to be honest. That’s why this measure is tailored so specifically to deal just with this situation. This is not a broad, blanket policy that’s going to tie the hands of the executive branch. There’s no dangerous precedent being set here. Just an attempt to stop a war that’s costing far too many innocent lives.
“I think we’ll hear my friends question whether this measure would even do anything because this measure withdraws American forces engaged in hostilities, and the Pentagon says “hostilities” only applies to situations where American troops are firing weapons at an enemy.
“I have two reactions to that.
“First of all, this measure would specifically define hostilities to include aerial refueling of warplanes carrying out airstrikes against Houthi militants. Now, I understand the Defense Department has stopped refueling as a matter of policy. But policies can be reversed. So this resolution would cut off refueling as a matter of law.
“My second point is broader, and gets at the heart of today’s debate: this body is not subject to the definitions conjured up by the Defense Department. We don’t ask permission to exercise our Article I authority. Of course the Pentagon is going to define things in a way that consolidates the power of the executive branch, but Congress, with authority over war powers, need not accept that definition.
“The Congress has lost its grip on foreign policy, in my opinion, by granting too much deference to the executive branch… by failing to examine the decisions and determinations and definitions that are used to justify sending Americans into harm’s way. Our job is to keep that branch in check, not to shrug our shoulders when they tell us to mind our own business.
“Lastly, I think we’ll hear my colleagues on the other side ask, “Isn’t this just all politics?”
“No, Madam Chair. Politics is what the former majority did to this resolution—twice—during the last Congress. Politics is stifling debate on national security issues because we aren’t uncomfortable with the message it might send or we don’t want to take a tough vote. Politics is walking away from our constitutional responsibilities, as Congress has done for far too long. And frankly, we’ve done it for far too long – Congresses in both parties with the majority, and Presidents in both parties.
“Our Article I responsibilities are things that we cannot just simply turn the other way. We are a coequal branch of government, and we have not had a declaration of war, for instance, since 1941. We are content to just tell whatever Administration is in, ‘Go ahead, you handle it. We don’t have any responsibility.’ I hope that that stops this afternoon.
“The other body has already weighed in on this measure. It passed with bipartisan support. Today, the members of the House get our chance to go on record, finally, and say where we stand.
“I joined this resolution as an original cosponsor because I think it will lead to a sort of reckoning for our government. What’s our role in the conflict in Yemen? What’s Congress’s voice in our foreign policy? How will we exercise American leadership and American power—what will we provide and what will we withhold—to push warring parties toward peace?
“I want to thank Mr. Khanna for his hard work and for his leadership in shining a light on this issue. I want to thank our members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who have contributed so far to a valuable debate. I want to thank Mr. McCaul who has made his opposition to this about the policy—not about the politics or the personalities. We’re going to have a lot more debates, sometimes we’ll be on the same side and sometimes not, but I hope we can always grapple with these challenges in a substantive way.
“And for now, Madam Chair, I thank you and I reserve the balance of my time.”
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