Putting a tighter congressional rein on sale of US arms abroad

Some members of Congress want more say in which foreign countries are allowed to buy American arms. A bill introduced by Rep. Mel Levine (D) of California and Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware would make it harder for the White House to win congressional approval for controversial arms sales. Though covert deals such as the arms transfers to Iran would be not covered by the bill, publicity about the Iran scheme has boosted its fortunes.

Critics say the bill is about much more than arms sales. They say it is also:

A struggle for power between the legislative and executive branches of government.

An attempt to alter American policy in the Middle East by making it harder for Arab nations, in particular, to purchase United States weapons.

Congress has long involved itself in regulating the actions of US arms exporters. After World War I a special congressional committee investigated the marketing techniques used by US arms firms overseas. In the mid-1970s, disclosures of bribes to foreign officials by Lockheed and other defense contractors led to passage of the Arms Export Control Act, which greatly expanded congressional involvement in this area of commerce.

Until a few years ago it was relatively easy for lawmakers to prevent an arms sale. All that was required was for either the House or the Senate to pass a ``concurrent resolution of disapproval'' by majority vote. Because it was not strictly a piece of legislation, the President could not veto it.

But in 1983 the Supreme Court ruled this arrangement an unconstitutional usurpation of White House power. To stop an arms sale now both chambers must pass a resolution of disapproval. Then, more than likely, a two-thirds majority would have to be mustered to override a presidential veto.

Last year a White House-sponsored sale of $265 million in weapons to Saudi Arabia survived by the barest of margins. The House voted it down, but the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds necessary for disapproval.

The Levin-Biden bill would again change the mechanism of congressional arms-sale approval. All US deals for major weapons with nations other than NATO members, Egypt, or Israel would have to pass congressional muster. Stopping them would take only a majority vote of both chambers.

Congressman Levine says his bill is needed to ``enact into law a constitutional mechanism which would give Congress a role in decisions related to arms sales.''

Critics note that Congress already has a role, and the real point of the bill is to lessen White House power. Both the Reagan administration and industry groups oppose it.

Although Congress has not killed an arms deal outright, its opposition has forced several administrations to rethink requests or modify them. The Reagan administration deleted Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from a 1986 Saudi deal.

Critics also say that for all practical purposes the bill is the ``No Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Act of 1987,'' as most controversial weapons deals of recent years have involved the Saudis.

``The Arab world will interpret this bill as a slam in the teeth,'' says a critic who asked not to be identified.

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