* Key lawmakers blast Obama's move to curtail consultations
* Dispute could harm countries such as Israel, senator says
* Arms sales are an important part of US foreign policy
* Overseas sales for U.S. arms makers large and growing
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, April 18 The Obama administration
has trimmed the U.S. Congress' decades-long role in vetting
billions of dollars in proposed arms sales in a move that will
result in more congressional efforts to block deals, key
lawmakers said in a letter made public Wednesday.
The newly disclosed tug-of-war between the lawmakers and the
administration over the issue threatens to derail case-by-case
consideration of arms deals, an increasingly prominent aspect of
U.S. foreign policy.
Overseas sales account for a growing percentage, in some
cases up to 25 percent or more, of annual revenue for U.S. arms
makers squeezed by flattening sales to the Pentagon amid
The dispute could have "severe implications" for U.S.
national security and that of U.S. partners including Israel,
warned Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee.
"Should Congress have doubts about a proposed sale to one of
Israel's potential adversaries, legislators would have
diminished leverage to get their questions answered or to block
consideration of the deal if the president is determined to
force it through," Lugar wrote in a guest column in the
Washington Times newspaper on Wednesday.
At issue are steps implemented by the State Department to
curtail an informal consultative process, in effect since the
late 1970s, that routinely occurs prior to a formal notification
to the Congress of a proposed arms sale.
The lawmakers' concerns were spelled out in an April 3
letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The letter, made available to Reuters, was signed by Lugar;
the Republican chairwoman of the House of Representatives'
Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; and that
panel's top Democrat, Representative Howard Berman.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a
Democrat, was alone among lawmakers with the most say over arms
sales because of their committee leadership roles not to sign
the letter to Clinton.
"I've promoted a good-faith discussion between Congress and
the State Department to make this process a productive and
timely means of exchanging information between the Executive
Branch and Congress," he said in an emailed reply to Reuters.
"Going forward, we must retain a framework for consultations
so that Congress' views and concerns are addressed."
Traditionally, the executive branch has held off on
statutory notification of an arms sale until Congress' concerns
have been addressed through consultations. Congress has 30 days
to review a proposed deal after formal notification in the case
of most non-NATO countries.
But within what they described as a new, arbitrary,
compressed, timeline set by the administration for advance
consultations, "the only recourse for us ... will be to formally
introduce joint resolutions of disapproval on many more sales,"
the three lawmakers wrote to Clinton.
Congress has never successfully blocked a proposed arms sale
through a joint resolution of disapproval. During back-and-forth
with the executive branch, however, lawmakers have often
affected the timing and makeup of arms packages, and may have
dissuaded the president from making certain sales.
In the fall of 1990, after then-Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein invaded Kuwait, for example, lawmakers persuaded the
George H.W. Bush administration to more than halve a proposed
arms package to Saudi Arabia, the nonpartisan Congressional
Research Service said in a Feb. 1 report on the arms-sale
The State Department had no immediate on-the-record response
to the lawmakers' letter nor to Lugar's stated concern about the
potential impact of its new policy for Israel.
An administration official who asked not to be named said
one reason for the revised policy was that, as he put it,
Congress sometimes took too long to clear the way for formal
"The old process placed U.S. industry at a competitive
disadvantage and prompted allies to question our reliability as
a defense supplier and security supplier at a time when we are
doing more joint development of defense technologies with our
allies," the official said.
The United States is the world's largest arms exporter. In
2010, Washington signed $21.3 billion in worldwide arms transfer
agreements, or 52.7 percent of the total, Richard Grimmett of
the Congressional Research Service said in a Sept. 22, 2011,
report on arms transfers.
U.S. military sales abroad include nearly 13,000 active
"cases" involving about 225 countries with sales totaling $34.8
billion in 2011, according to Charles Taylor, a spokesman for
the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which
executes the sales.
Among the companies with the largest share of U.S. foreign
military sales are Lockheed Martin, Boeing,
Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Raytheon
and General Dynamics.
The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a
private group that describes itself as dedicated to
strengthening Israel and other like-minded democracies, voiced
concern over the revised State Department policy.
"Congress plays a vital role in vetting arms sales to foreign
nations through appropriate concern for regional military
balances, human rights, corruption abroad and, most importantly,
experienced consideration of America's national security
interests," Larry Greenfield, the group's executive director,
said in an emailed reply.