In an unprecedented move regarding the security of the United States, thirty-one House Democrats have endorsed a letter asking President Biden to renounce his sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. The effort is being driven by Reps. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).

In the letter sent to Biden on Monday, the two California Democrats ask that the President reconstruct the command-and-control structure of the nation’s nuclear weapons so that no single person can initiate a nuclear war. Each commander-in-chief possesses what is known as the “nuclear football,” a briefcase that holds everything necessary for a President to authorize a nuclear strike. Officially known as the “President’s emergency satchel,” the unsophisticated-looking portable “football” is hand-carried by one of five military aides and is always within reach of the commander-in-chief. The main objective of the black leather briefcase is to confirm the President’s identity. Contrary to popular belief, it does not contain a big red button for launching a nuclear war.

The congressmen’s letter remarks that there is currently no requirement that the President must consult with advisors before ordering a nuclear attack, stating that “you alone possess the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons, which assures that nuclear weapons remain under civilian control.” The letter continues, saying that “vesting one person with this authority entails real risks. Past Presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons or exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about the President’s judgment.”

TAKING THE OATH From left, Leon Panetta, Sylvia Panetta, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Siri and Gia Panetta, Jimmy Panetta, Carrie McIntyre Panetta, Elizabeth Panetta and Dr. Carmelo Panetta. Credit: U.S House of Representatives

“Seeking to reduce risks inherent in the present system,” the lawmakers propose four alternatives. They are:

  • Requiring additional officials in the line of the Presidential succession, starting with the vice president and the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—neither of whom can be removed by the President if they disagree—to concur with a launch order, and utilizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s tracking of those officials to ensure prompt communication.
  • Requiring certifications from the Secretary of Defense that the launch order is valid and from the Attorney General that it is legal. Concurrence from the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and/or Secretary of State could also be required. 
  • Requiring a congressional declaration of war and specific authorization from Congress before any nuclear first strike can be conducted.
  • Creating a permanent active council of congressional leaders that would regularly participate in deliberations with the executive branch on vital national security issues and mandate some portion of the council be consulted before the first use of nuclear weapons. 

Acknowledging Biden’s “distinguished record of leadership on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation as Senator and Vice President,” the duo urged the President to “lead again” and review ways to end his sole authority over launching a nuclear attack. 

Such a move from the President—giving up his nuclear capabilities as commander-in-chief—could take the same power away from future Presidents. These suggestions are not new for Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced concern over the President’s authority to approve nuclear strikes under President Trump’s administration. In the final weeks of Trump’s term, the Speaker of the House announced she spoke to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to evaluate Trump’s access to nuclear launch codes. Pelosi said in a letter on Jan. 8:

“I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable President from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike. The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.”