The tide is turning. The House of Representatives just overwhelmingly passed a resolution rebuking Donald Trump and ordering the end of the US-backed Saudi-led war in Yemen. This comes on the heels of a similar vote by the Republican-controlled Senate in December. There is now a real chance that both chambers of Congress could jointly intervene to stop an unauthorized US war for the first time since the Vietnam era. Make no mistake: this milestone is not just about war and peace. It’s a bellwether for American democracy itself. Here’s why.
It’s hard to find a more glaring example of eroding democratic institutions than war powers. Despite the constitutional power clearly vested in Congress —- not the president — to decide when and where we go to war, electeds have been more than happy to avoid debating or voting on war at all. This arrangement works well for presidents, who prefer to act unilaterally — rather than ask Congress for permission to use force and suffer an embarrassing rejection.
This abundance of inaction allows officials to take credit with voters when military campaigns go well and avoid blame when they don’t.
This abundance of inaction allows officials to take credit with voters when military campaigns go well and avoid blame when they don’t. No one has skin in the game — and it deprives the public of adequate information about what’s happening in their names or any opportunity to weigh in and hold their government accountable. It’s a political win-win for presidents and Congress, but a devastating lose-lose both for casualties of conflicts as well as American democracy.
For an example, look no further than the total inversion of checks and balances that the “War on Terror” ushered in. With a flimsy reliance on a sweeping authorization passed by Congress 18 years ago, three administrations have engaged in secretive, ineffective, endless wars across the globe without fully disclosing where or why. Today, Congress isn’t really asking questions or threatening to cancel that blank check. As a result, the American people are left in the dark as the body count continues to rise, and no one is held accountable. This is not how functional democracy is meant to work.
But the Yemen case is particularly outrageous. Wholly apart from the ongoing terrorism wars, the US has also decided to get involved in Yemen’s civil war by backing Saudi-led coalition forces. At no point has Congress ever voted on anything to authorize US participation in Yemen’s civil war. The American people and their elected representatives were bypassed entirely. This illegal war started before Trump, but it very well may end under him.
Truly, it’s unfortunate that it has taken a catastrophe of this magnitude to convince Congress to wrench back the powers it is constitutionally owed. Consider: as a result of indiscriminate US-made and US-supported bombs, the people of Yemen are being systematically starved and massacred. All this in support of Saudi Arabia, even after the horrific murder of US resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Yemen’s heartache shows us in one picture the three evils that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned against: racism, materialism, and militarism. Donald Trump’s administration has covered up for Saudi crimes and doubled down on the destruction of Yemeni men, women, and children in the poorest country in the world. Meanwhile, Saudi money has filled the coffers of Trump businesses and big defense contractors.
Yemen’s suffering is what happens when our democratic system fails every step of the way, and power is consolidated into reckless, corrupt, unaccountable hands. This is why what just happened in Congress is about more than simply a single war powers resolution — it’s about reclaiming democracy. There is a grassroots movement that has sprung up in the Trump era, hungry to take back democracy and make their voices heard — and that movement is looking to Congress for leadership.
If the Senate repeats what it did in December and passes this resolution, it will mark the first time in history that Congress has sent a war powers resolution to a president’s desk to end a conflict. This is a huge deal, and it’s the latest evidence that business as usual just won’t cut it anymore. The American people have spoken, and they’re demanding bold action to revamp the very foundations of our democracy. Even better, Congress is finally listening.
Leah Greenberg is a co-founder and co-Executive Director of the Indivisible Project. Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg are the married pair of former congressional staffers who published the “Indivisible Guide” following Donald Trump’s election, outlining tactics to resist Trump’s agenda by putting local pressure on their members of Congress.
Elizabeth Beavers is Associate Policy Director for the Indivisible Project, focusing on foreign policy and national security.