Evan Vucci, AP
In this March 20, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

Bipartisan congressional efforts to keep President Donald Trump from selling $8.1 billion in weapons and bombs to Saudi Arabia and its allies represent exactly the kind of check and balance the Founders envisioned.

Congress holds the purse strings. The president does not have dictatorial powers.

It’s been so long since Congress exercised its watchdog role over controversial matters that people may have forgotten the separate but equal powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. But this is an important government principle that, if used more often by the people’s representatives, would lead to negotiated settlements of some of the nation’s most divisive issues.

In this case, President Trump is so insistent on selling the weapons that he would attempt to sidestep Congress by declaring the need for the sale a national security emergency. That is a dubious assertion, at best. The weapons are meant to help a Saudi-led coalition in its fight against Iranian-supported rebels in Yemen.

Congress has good reasons to oppose this sale. After the recent, apparently government-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, other human rights abuses and high numbers of unnecessary civilian deaths in Yemen, the Saudis have become unreliable and unstable allies. Also, evidence suggests previous sales of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia have ended up in the hands of terrorists, and might eventually be used to attack U.S. interests.

These objections have been voiced by Republicans as well as Democrats. Trump supporters such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have vowed to stop the sale. Reuters quoted Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, saying he supports Saudi efforts in the Yemen war, “but the recent use of this emergency authority, in my judgment, was unfortunate.” Utah Sen. Mike Lee has helped lead the charge.

The Senate has drafted 22 resolutions opposing separate pieces of the arms deal, noting this is to “protect and reaffirm Congress’ role of approving arms sales to foreign governments.”

That is a refreshingly correct declaration of the separation of powers.

The Democrat-controlled House also can be counted on to oppose the sale.

Unfortunately, this is an exercise that ultimately will prove futile. The House and Senate may indeed muster the votes needed to block the arms sale, but they likely do not have the votes to override a presidential veto of such a blockage.

24 comments on this story

However, by publicly standing up to the president, Congress could do much to reinstate its proper role as a legislative body that provides for the common defense and regulates commerce with foreign nations. It also might gain the leverage needed to ensure that the arms sale comes with guarantees against offensives that target civilians or future deals that enrich terrorists.

It also would be a strong bipartisan salvo that might signal a new backbone for a legislative branch that, for too many years, has been all too happy to let presidents or the courts settle important matters.