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The Hill - House votes to curtail Insurrection Act powers

Washington, DC, July 20, 2020
By Rebecca Kheel

The Democratic-controlled House voted Monday to add limits to the Insurrection Act after President Trump threatened to invoke it to deploy active-duty troops against recent protests over racial injustice.

In a 215-190 vote, the House approved the Insurrection Act changes as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

The vote fell largely along party-lines, though 14 Democrats voted with Republicans against the amendment. One Republican, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), voted for the amendment. 

Last month, Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act at the height of nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, saying he would deploy active-duty troops if governors did not “dominate” their streets.

The 1807 law creates an exception to the general prohibition on using the U.S. military to enforce domestic laws. It was last used by then-President George H.W. Bush at the request of California’s governor to quell the 1992 Rodney King riots.

Trump has not yet invoked the Insurrection Act, but Democrats have continued pushing changes to it after federal law enforcement cleared protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House with force, Trump deployed thousands of National Guardsmen in Washington, D.C., and the administration ordered active-duty soldiers to deploy to outside D.C. to be ready to enter the city if ordered.

Monday’s amendment comes after the House Armed Services Committee rejected a similar amendment at the beginning of the month after several centrist or vulnerable Democrats voted against it.

The amendment approved Monday would require a president consult with Congress “in every possible instance” before invoking the Insurrection Act, as well as require the president and Defense secretary to make a certification to Congress that a state is unwilling or unable to suppress an insurrection in order to invoke the law. The certification would have to include “demonstrable” evidence that a state is unwilling or unable to act.

“Today, if the president of the United States chooses to use military force abroad the president would have to consult with Congress,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), the sponsor of the amendment. “Yet that same consultation is not required for use of military force on American soil.”

The amendment would also specify that troops deployed under the Insurrection Act are not allowed to participate in search, seizure, arrest or “other similar activity” unless they are “otherwise expressly authorized by law.” 

Republicans argued the amendment would dangerously constrain troops and delay a president’s ability to respond to a riot.

“This is dangerous,” Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) said. “We’re having a knee-jerk reaction to what we think the president might do. Not what he did, but what we think he might do.”

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