Senator Markey introduces legislation to restrict nuclear-weapons-use

Legislation would prohibit the U.S. president from using nuclear weapons first, without specific authorisation from the Congress.

On September 27, PNND Co-President Edward J. Markey introduced the “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016” into the U.S. Senate. Congressman Ted W. Lieu introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislations would prohibit the U.S. President from launching a nuclear first strike without specific authorization of the U.S. Congress. 

Currently, the U.S. maintains hundreds of nuclear weapons on high operational readiness to use - within minutes of a command from the President. This includes the option for the President to initiate a first-use of nuclear weapons, i.e. before nuclear weapons have been used against the U.S. or its allies.

“Nuclear war poses the gravest risk to human survival. Unfortunately, by maintaining the option of using nuclear weapons first in a conflict, U.S. policy increases the risk of unintended nuclear escalation,” said Senator Markey, who is also co-founder of the Congressional Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation. “The President should not use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack. The crucial issue of nuclear first use – discussed in last evening’s Presidential Debate – is all the more urgent given the fact that a majority of Americans do not trust Republican Nominee Donald Trump with our nation’s nuclear arsenal.”

“Our Founding Fathers would be rolling over in their graves if they knew the President could launch a massive, potentially civilization-ending military strike without authorization from Congress,” said Rep. Lieu, a member of the Committees on the Budget and Oversight & Government Reform. “Our Constitution created a government based on checks and balances and gave the power to declare war solely to the people’s representatives. A nuclear first strike, which can kill hundreds of millions of people and invite a retaliatory strike that can destroy America, is war. The current nuclear launch approval process, which gives the decision to potentially end civilization as we know it to a single individual, is flatly unconstitutional. I am proud to introduce the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016 with Sen. Markey to realign our nation’s nuclear weapons launch policy with the Constitution.”

The measure by Senator Markey follows other initiatives he has taken in the U.S. Senate to reduce the risks of nuclear-weapons-use and pave the way for nuclear abolition. This includes:

  • A joint letter to President Barack Obama released on 20 July 2016, with nine other senators enate colleagues calling on the president to scale back the nuclear weapons budget, adopt a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, cancel plans to develop a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, and cancel launch-on-warning plans.
  • Introducing into the Senate the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures ("SANE" Act), which would slash the U.S. nuclear weapons budget and re-allocate the funds to support health, education, renewable energy and the environment. See Senator Ed Markey introduces the SANE Act during the PNND Assembly

Praise for the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016

William J. Perry, Former Secretary of Defense – “During my period as Secretary of Defense, I never confronted a situation, or could even imagine a situation, in which I would recommend that the President make a first strike with nuclear weapons—understanding that such an action, whatever the provocation, would likely bring about the end of civilization.  I believe that the legislation proposed by Congressman Lieu and Senator Markey recognizes that terrible reality.  Certainly a decision that momentous for all of civilization should have the kind of checks and balances on Executive powers called for by our Constitution.” 

Tom Z. Collina, Policy Director of Ploughshares Fund – “Current US nuclear policy is undemocratic and unconstitutional. In the realm of nuclear weapons, the United States is closer to a dictatorship than a democracy. The President has absolute authority to use nuclear weapons, and Congress has been cut out. It is time to bring democracy to nuclear policy, and Rep. Lieu and Sen. Markey’s bill moves us in that direction.”

Megan Amundson, Executive Director of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) – “Rep. Lieu and Sen. Markey have rightly called out the dangers of only one person having his or her finger on the nuclear button. The potential misuse of this power in the current global climate has only magnified this concern. It is time to make real progress toward lowering the risk that nuclear weapons are ever used again, and this legislation is a good start.”

Catherine Thomasson, MD, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility – "We must understand that our own nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable risk to our national security. The "successful" use of our own nuclear arsenal would cause catastrophic climate disruption around the world including here in the United States. These weapons are suicide bombs, and no one individual should have the power to introduce them into a conflict. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016 is an important step to lessen the chance these weapons will be used."