Which answer do you want first — the fun answer, or the better answer? Let’s start off with the fun answer, but first, let’s specify precisely what House Democrats want from Joe Biden. A letter signed by three dozen of his party’s caucus urges the new president to relinquish full control over the country’s nuclear weapons in favor of a committee approach:
Nearly three dozen House Democrats on Monday called on Biden to relinquish his sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, in the latest appeal to reform the command-and-control structure so that no single person can initiate a nuclear war.
“…Vesting one person with this authority entails real risks,” states the letter spearheaded by Rep. Jimmy Panetta of California. “Past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons or exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about the president’s judgment.“
“While any president would presumably consult with advisors before ordering a nuclear attack, there is no requirement to do so,” the letter adds. “The military is obligated to carry out the order if they assess it is legal under the laws of war. Under the current posture of U.S. nuclear forces, that attack would happen in minutes.”
So what’s the fun explanation? Via Twitchy and Twitter pal Aaron Walker, Democrats are worried that Biden’s mentis is too non compos to trust with the football:
Joe Biden is mentally compromised and they know it
— (((Aaron “Worthing” Walker))) (@AaronWorthing) February 23, 2021
Weeeellllll, that’s good for a laugh. The letter puts it quite differently, however. The reference to “past presidents” is obviously a veiled reference to Donald Trump. And that veil doesn’t even extend as far as the footnotes, where a link to Trump’s supposed “threat” to nuke North Korea matches up with a recollection from former SecDef James Schlesinger about his concerns over Richard Nixon’s stability in the final days of his doomed presidency. There’s also a reference to Nancy Pelosi’s demand to remove the football from Trump after the January 6 Capitol riot, a demand which went nowhere in large part because Pelosi didn’t intend it as anything more than a stunt.
As an attempt to fix a problem before it arises (arguably, again), it’s not a bad idea, considering both the massive consequences of leaving control of the nuclear stockpile in one person’s hands and the constitutional requirement for Congress to authorize war. What happens when that one person turns out to be unstable, either as a permanent feature of his/her personality or as the result of some physical or mental crisis? Just because that hasn’t become an acute problem so far doesn’t mean that it won’t be at some point. Asking for more consensus around that decision seems to be a reasonable request, especially since the retaliatory strike will have its disincentivizing impact on a nuclear aggressor no matter when those missiles launch. Asking a Democratic president to resolve this risk makes more sense for fellow Democrats, as it doesn’t imply any partisan hostilities as a motive.
However, why does Congress need to ask? Congress doesn’t exist as an advisory board to the executive — it passes its own laws and negotiates with the executive on a co-equal basis. Congress could solve this problem by passing a law that requires the president to get that kind of approval for nuclear launches, and challenging Biden to sign it rather than veto it. That makes more sense if one is concerned not just about one particular president but all presidents. If all that this letter produces is an internal policy change requiring three fingers on the button, it might only last as long as this particular presidency does. The very kind of president that creates this concern would be the least likely to adopt that as a voluntary restriction, in fact.
The idea is probably long overdue. The letter itself, with its pleading for Biden to “install additional checks and balances into the system,” only serves to remind us how flabby and inconsequential Congress has made itself, a status for which both parties are to blame. Congress is supposed to be the checks and balances for the executive itself. Instead, its members spend their time avoiding any consequential votes, engaging instead in performance-art stunts, while begging the executive and the courts to do the jobs assigned to them by the Constitution. This is an excellent time and opportunity for Congress to put aside the clown show and get back to its place as a co-equal branch in governance.