264. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter 1


  • Legislation on Conventional Arms Transfer

This memorandum proposes an Administration initiative to seek deferral of significant changes in the legislation presently governing United States arms transfers. In essence, we would undertake, in exchange for Congressional restraint at this time, to involve Congress directly in a joint deliberative process, following your decisions on the response to PRM/NSC–12,2 designed to formulate legislation that takes into account the objectives and concerns of both Branches.


Work is progressing on the study of conventional arms transfers which you have directed by PRM/NSC–12, and we should be ready to present options and recommendations to you in the latter part of March. This study will also provide the basis for the studies and reports to Congress mandated by last year’s Arms Export Control Act.

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There is a substantial risk that Congress will not await the formulation of the Administration’s specific arms transfer policies, or the studies and reports it has requested, but will instead seek to attach a variety of amendments to the FY 1978 security assistance authorization bill. A number of amendments to the legislation presently governing arms transfers have already been introduced. These amendments would impose new restrictions on your authority and would further complicate the Congressional review procedures for Executive Branch decisions.

Present Situation

We have begun a broad-ranging consultation to inform members of Congress of the restraint-oriented objectives you have already stated, to explain to them our current efforts to achieve better control and greater restraint with respect to arms transfers, and to elicit their ideas. In the course of these consultations, we are urging members to refrain from pressing for substantial changes in existing law until the Administration has had an opportunity to develop and begin to implement its policies. Most members are sympathetic but cannot assure us that Congress will not try to preempt your decisions.

The FY 1978 security assistance authorization bill must be considered within a very brief time span. The Administration’s request will have to be submitted early in March and the bill must be reported out of committee by May 15. This schedule will not permit a considered examination of existing law and a thoughtful statutory revision that will complement your policies. Either the Congress will confine itself to authorizing necessary appropriations and enacting only needed statutory authority or it will attach to the bill a number of hastily considered piecemeal modifications of existing authorities and procedures.

A Plan for Avoiding Harmful Legislation

The content of the FY 1978 authorization bill will be determined to a considerable extent by how Congress perceives the Administration’s commitment to reducing the proliferation of conventional arms, and how it perceives the Administration’s willingness to involve Congress in the process.

Our ongoing consultations are a step in the right direction, but are not likely to be sufficient, in themselves, in gaining the time we need for constructive legislative revision. We may, however, be able to achieve the cooperation of Congress by offering it a significant participatory role in framing the legislation that will be needed after you have decided on the options that will be presented to you in response to PRM/NSC–12.

Specifically, I suggest that you authorize me to explore with Congressional leaders the possibility of convening a joint Executive/Legis[Page 652]lative Branch working group which would meet after enactment of the FY 1978 security assistance authorization bill. This working group would consider changes in the basic authorizing legislation desired by either Branch, and would prepare a draft bill reflecting agreements reached in their deliberations that would be formally considered in the FY 1979 authorization cycle. The draft bill, apart from substantive revisions, could reorganize the legislation into a more simple and intelligible format that would facilitate its implementation.

The Executive Branch participants in the working group would be drawn from the several agencies concerned, and would work under the supervision of the Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance. Their principal source of guidance would be your decisions resulting from the PRM–12 study. The results of their deliberations with Congressional participants (concentrating on, but not limited to, the foreign affairs committees) would be presented to you for approval.

Disagreements that could not be resolved by the working group would be referred for resolution by senior Administration officials and the Congressional leadership. Even if complete agreement could not be reached, the experience would be mutually instructive and conducive to a more harmonious working relationship between the two Branches. Better legislation would probably emerge from such a collaborative effort than from the more traditional process of recent years in which both Branches have independently proposed legislation to which they were publicly committed.

If you approve the concept described above, and if key members of Congress are receptive, you could then publicly urge Congress to defer legislative revision at this time, and propose a collaborative effort later this year within a comprehensive policy framework. Such a proposal could be made in a meeting with Congressional leaders or in your message to Congress next week transmitting the FY 1978 security assistance authorization bill.


That you authorize me to discuss with Congressional leaders the proposal described above, and to indicate that it has your support.3

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Global Issues, Mathews Subject File, Box 4, Arms Transfers: Congress: 3–9/77. Confidential.
  2. See Document 259.
  3. Carter did not indicate whether he authorized Vance to discuss the proposal with Congressional leaders.