WASHINGTON ― A House task force established to speed up the foreign military sales process will debate its first bill in the Foreign Affairs Committee next week, marking what could be the next legislative step in untangling arms deals backlogs.
The bill raises the dollar threshold at which the president can approve an arms transfer without notifying Congress, while requiring the drawdown of weapons from U.S. stockpiles to compensate for delayed foreign military sales. It has generated pushback among some arms control advocates who fear the legislation would chip away at a key congressional oversight mechanism used to track weapons deals with other countries.
As head of the task force established last year, Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., introduced the Tiger Act in December.
“The tempo of conventional high-intensity war that we’re seeing means that countries are burning through their defense equipment much faster,” a Waltz staffer told Defense News, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the bill. “That is something that we on the Hill were taken by surprise [by] in places like Ukraine: the shortage of precision munitions, the shortage of 155mm shells.”
In addition to Ukraine, the Biden administration has transferred thousands of munitions to Israel since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks even as it seeks to rush arms to Taiwan to deter a potential Chinese invasion.
The bill raises the threshold for which the executive branch can approve an arms sale of major defense equipment without congressional notification from $14 million to $23 million. It also raises the threshold for the sale of defense articles, upgrades, related training or other services without congressional notification from $50 million to $83 million. The staffer said the numbers were selected to reflect inflation since 2003, when Congress last adjusted the thresholds.
“Ensuring that countries have the ability to purchase some of these weapons without, as years go on, being increasingly penalized by rising inflation rates seems to be common sense,” the staffer said.
But arms control advocates argue the bill would cede congressional oversight authority.
“Notification thresholds are really at the core of Congress’ arms sale oversight regime,” John Chappell, an advocacy and legal fellow at the Washington-based Center for Civilians in Conflict, told Defense News.
“Raising the threshold would undercut Congress’ ability to be aware of the proposed arms transfer. That would mean Congress wouldn’t be able to conduct oversight, and they would lose the opportunity to ask questions about specific arms sales, to put informal holds on them and to raise concerns about issues related to civilian harm, human rights, armed conflict and other issues,” he said.
Chappell noted many U.S. arms sales to Israel since Oct. 7 have fallen below the existing notification thresholds. He also highlighted a 2020 State Department Inspector General report, which found the Trump administration approved 4,221 below-threshold arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates amounting to $11.2 billion between Jan. 2017 and Aug. 2020.
Waltz’s legislation emerged from a bipartisan taskforce of three Republicans and two Democrats who sit on the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and defense appropriations committees. But Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, declined to comment on the legislation.
The Waltz bill also requires the secretary of state to use drawdown authority from U.S. stockpiles to transfer weapons to a security partner or ally if a sale has been delayed for three years or more. However, the secretary of state may waive this provision so long as he or she explains why to Congress.
“What this is saying is if there’s a long-running [foreign military sale], the secretary must explain why it can’t be prioritized,” said the Waltz staffer. “Let’s say you have the sale of Harpoons to Taiwan that have been outstanding for three years, and we have Harpoons in our arsenal.”
The staffer noted the drawdown language is still under negotiation and the legislation may change via amendments in the Foreign Affairs Committee markup next week.
Harpoon anti-ship missiles comprise part of the roughly $19 billion foreign military sale backlog to Taiwan, caused in part by contracting delays and U.S. industrial base constraints. Several other U.S. partners, including in the Middle East, have been hit with arms sales delays.
But Chappell argued the provision would make “presidential drawdown authority specifically a routine occurrence” and could be used to circumvent congressional holds on an arms transfers that top lawmakers on the foreign affairs committees sometimes place over human rights concerns.
Additionally, the bill seeks to beef up the Special Defense Acquisition Fund, a revolving account used for foreign military sale procurement that the Pentagon hopes to lean on more as it works to expedite the process. The Pentagon released the results of its own Tiger team task force to speed up arms sales last year and has a separate task force focused on Taiwan. It’s also recently established another Tiger team task force to speed up arms transfers to Israel, according to The Intercept.
The Foreign Affairs Committee will debate and vote on the legislation next week, potentially referring it to the House floor for consideration.
The Waltz staffer noted the task force seeks to make additional legislative adjustments to the foreign military sales process later this year as Congress drafts the fiscal 2025 defense policy bill.
The FY24 defense policy bill, which Congress passed in December, includes a provision authorizing each combatant commander to hire up to two acquisition specialists as part of a bid to speed Pentagon contracting of foreign military sales.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.