House Armed Services Committee members voted Tuesday to condemn President Obama for failing to consult with congressional leaders before swapping five Taliban prisoners for prisoner of war Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The move, approved largely along party lines, drew criticism from Democrats on the defense panel who called it another in a series of stunts designed to undermine the president.
But Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, insisted the move had nothing to do with politics, but instead speaks to the importance of respecting Congress’ role in national defense.
“This is a declaration from one branch of government to another about exceeding the bounds of constitutional authority,” McKeon said. “If Congress does not speak strongly now, we invite any administration to again ignore the lawfully codified intentions of Congress.”
At issue is a 2014 law requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress at least 30 days before the transfer of any detainees housed at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The five prisoners sent to Qatar as part of the deal that ended Bergdahl’s five years of captivity were housed there, but administration officials argued that the sensitive and fluid nature of negotiations for Bergdahl’s release prohibited such notification.
The White House also has argued that the notification requirement can be ignored in cases where Americans’ lives are at risk. But critics have questioned the legal basis for that claim and the imminent danger faced by Bergdahl just before the deal was struck.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking Democrat, said he was dismayed by the decision to exclude Congress from any negotiations and dismissed administration accusations that lawmakers were more likely to leak the information than White House staff.
“There’s no reason why they couldn’t have done that,” he said. “But I do not think what the president did was unlawful. I think he had a different interpretation of [the law].”
But Smith also objected to the scope of the resolution, which pointed not just to the 30-day notification violation but also the parameters of the deal and the philosophy of negotiating with Taliban leaders.
His effort to replace the resolution with a watered-down version asking for Congress to be included in future negotiations was rejected.
The House is already moving to consider a resolution authorizing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to file a lawsuit on the chamber’s behalf against Obama’s use of executive actions.
McKeon said the prisoner swap resolution had no connection to that issue, although several Republicans on the armed services committee referenced executive overreach in their comments supporting Tuesday’s move.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said it was crucial for the committee to push back “against this lawless presidency” and said Obama’s moves undermine American democracy.
If approved by the full House, the resolution does not carry any penalties, but McKeon and others said it sends a message against using the Bergdahl swap as legal precedent for similar future decisions.