WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to ensure that Congress continues to have an oversight role in authorizing the development of new, modified, nuclear weapons, U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a member of the Armed Services Committee, are offering an amendment to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The senators say the amendment is needed because the Trump Administration is seeking to add new sea-launched, low-yield nuclear warheads to the U.S. arsenal. Previous Administrations have been constrained from doing so by a bipartisan provision that required the approval of Congress. However, the current NDAA would strike this provision and strip Congress of its traditional oversight role when it comes to the development and deployment of new nuclear weapons.
While some experts believe that the U.S. development of low-yield nuclear weapons will be a credible deterrent to the Russian strategy and actually reduce the risk of nuclear war, many other experts in the field disagree.
The NDAA contains a provision removing restrictions on the U.S. development or deployment of new nuclear weapons without Congressional authorization and provides the U.S. Secretary of Energy with new authority to carry out the weapon’s energy development phase, or any subsequent phase, without Congress’ specific approval. This would allow the Administration to simply submit funding in the Department of Energy budget for new or modified nuclear weapons, not the Department of Defense budget. As such, this could be done by the Secretary of Energy, not necessarily through the Secretary of Defense. Indeed, in a strictly legal interpretation, the Secretary of Defense would have no role in the budget request. In addition, once the information appears in the budget sent to Congress, the Executive Branch can immediately begin using prior year’s monies subject to reprogramming guidelines approved informally by the four defense committees and not the full Senate to begin work on a low-yield nuclear weapon.
The Reed-Warren amendment would replace this language and ensure Congress maintains a central role in the development and deployment of nuclear weapons.
“Congress must not shirk its responsibility here,” said Senator Reed. “This is a matter of conscience and great consequence. It is imperative that every member of Congress be accountable when it comes to the development and deployment of our country’s nuclear arsenal. My amendment simply ensures that Congress is involved, every step of the way, in the development of any new or modified nuclear weapon. I believe it is critical, considering the destructive powers of this weapon, and I urge my colleagues to support this amendment.”
“I’m very concerned about this reckless provision to give the White House free rein to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons without congressional authorization,” said Senator Warren. “This is a dangerous change that would overturn more than a decade of bipartisan consensus on the development of nuclear weapons -- Congress should remove it from the defense bill.”
In 2003, Senator Reed offered an amendment which put sensible restrictions in place, allowing research and development, but prohibiting the development of a low-yield nuclear weapon. U.S. Senator John Warner (R-VA) offered a second degree amendment to the Reed amendment, allowing research and development to occur, but requiring specific authorization for development and production. Senator John Warner was very clear about the necessary role of Congress. On the floor he stated: “In the second degree amendment, it is clear that the Congress is fully in charge, working with the Executive Branch. The Congress, and only the Congress, can authorize and appropriate the funds necessary to go one step beyond what the earlier [Reed] amendment has provided.”
Senator John Warner’s second degree amendment passed 96-0 and has been the law of the land until it was rescinded in this year’s NDAA with language lifting the requirement of Congressional authorization for development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons.