August 17

IT IS A SAD reality that national security waivers often render human rights laws moot, inviting the government to overuse the loophole to accommodate immediate needs. The “coup clause,” which mandates foreign aid suspension to countries after a military takeover, has long been among the strongest foreign affairs legislation passed by Congress precisely because no such waiver exists for it.

But that may be changing. The House Appropriations Committee passed a bill that would allow aid resumption if the “provision of assistance is vital to the national security interests of the United States.” That bill leaves the definition of “national security” up to the administration, potentially allowing aid to be immediately restored to any country of its liking. The Obama administration requested a similar exemption in its fiscal 2014 and 2015 budgets, according to a State Department official.

The proposed change threatens what former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) calls the principled “default position” of the United States against military overthrows. The administration already has significant — arguably excessive — leeway under the current structure. In July 2013, the United States refused to label the Egyptian military takeover a coup, dithering on the sidelines while it deliberated whether to suspend aid. That lukewarm posture launched the Obama administration’s policy of appeasing the new Egyptian regime under Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

The administration already has shown a willingness to skirt the law without the national-security loophole. With it, the law will likely lose all its effect — allowing administrations to ignore in most cases any need for sanctions or other consequences after a putsch.

A House Appropriations Committee official told us that the waiver was passed because “in certain cases it may be in our national security interest to continue assistance in spite of coups or coup-like activities.” But there’s an existing process for those dire situations: Congress can pass a bill exempting a country from the law. In the wake of the September 2001 attacks, Congress passed a waiver for Pakistan to receive military aid in exchange for military cooperation. Aid had been suspended in 1999 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew an elected government.

The proposed change would grant the administration a blank check instead of the existing measured approach in which Congress deliberates exceptions case by case. In ceding this power to the executive branch, Congress may damage one of the most effective levers of U.S. policy in bringing about democratic transitions.

There’s one change in the bill that we favor: The secretary of state would have to notify Congress within 30 days whether a coup has occurred. That would help avoid a repeat of the Obama administration’s prevarication on Egypt. Yet this change would hardly matter if Congress accepts the national security loophole. Congress should reject this waiver and insist on maintaining discipline over the United States’ foreign policy.