David Adler: Congress must show leadership, fulfill constitutional duties

May 9, 2013 

Sen. Jim Risch's familiar denunciation of Congress as dysfunctional, a problem so severe, he recently told the Statesman's editorial board, that it would take a national crisis to persuade the legislative branch to meet its responsibilities, extends to matters of war and peace and the conduct of American foreign policy. Thus far, Sen. Risch has been part of the problem, but he could be part of the solution.

Continued congressional acquiescence in the face of presidential aggrandizement of legislative power in the realm of war and foreign affairs represents precisely the sort of constitutional crisis that ought to motivate Congress to perform its constitutional duties and responsibilities. President Obama's conduct of the "Drone Wars" without appropriate congressional authorization, as required by the Constitution, and the prospect of the use of military force in Syria, have raised anew the need for congressional leadership.

When Sen. Risch told the Statesman that the escalating crisis in Syria leaves President Obama without "good options," he shrugged off the powers and responsibilities that are part and parcel of his position as a member of the Senate. The "options" are hardly the sole province of the president. Indeed, the Constitution vests in Congress, not the president, the responsibility to authorize the use of military force.

Sen. Risch certainly is not the only member of Congress - Republican or Democrat - unwilling to assert his powers in the realm of national security and foreign affairs, but his committee assignments provide him with the ideal platform to press for the alignment of the Constitution and the conduct of American foreign policy.

As a member of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, in addition to his role as ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, which has responsibility for North Africa and the Middle East, Risch is better positioned than most members of the Senate to insist on congressional leadership on such matters as the proposed creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone in Syria. Enforcement of a no-fly zone, military analysts agree, would require substantial use of force by the American military to overcome the formidable Syrian defense capabilities.

From his seat on these prestigious Senate committees, Sen. Risch should call for hearings on a broad range of foreign relations issues, including the use of force, particularly those that occur in the Middle East, at a time when military actions occur on his watch. For a senator who has publicly expressed his admiration for the work of the framers of the Constitution, his voice on the need for Congress to assume the role and responsibilities assigned to it by the framers, would be a welcome exercise in leadership.

Every piece of the constitutional architecture that governs war making and the initiation of military hostilities - the text, legislative history, contemporaneous commentary, the Federalist Papers, early governmental practice and several Supreme Court decisions rendered at the dawn of the republic - declares Congress as the sole and exclusive repository of authority to authorize the use of force. James Madison, justly regarded as the Father of the Constitution, summed it up: "Congress has the power to commence, continue and conclude war."

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention - to a man - agreed that Congress, not the president, has the authority to take the nation to war. No Supreme Court decision has held that the president possesses authority to initiate hostilities. The president, moreover, has no authority to revise the Constitution. Like other governmental officials - executive and legislative - who swear an oath to obey the Constitution the president, like members of the Senate, is bound by its limitations and required to perform the duties of the office.

Most Americans will agree with Sen. Risch that Congress is dysfunctional. The responsibility for implementing meaningful remedies begins with members of Congress. It is not enough for members to complain about the dysfunction and disrepair of the institution that they, themselves, govern. Leadership begins when the citizenry places good men and women at the helm.

Sen. Risch has thus far shunned leadership on the major issues confronting our nation, including immigration and the debt crisis. But he has the opportunity, by virtue of his committee assignments, to raise his voice and wield influence in the realm of foreign affairs and national security, an area that affects the lives of every Idahoan and every American.

If he needs it, Sen. Risch can look for inspiration to the leadership provided by Sen. Frank Church, his distinguished predecessor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Some 50 years ago, Sen. Church rightly warned of the grave implications for our constitutional principles and republican values of presidential unilateralism in the areas of war making and foreign affairs. His words of wisdom were correct then, and they are correct now.

Idahoans are looking for similar leadership from Sen. Risch.

Adler is the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he holds appointment as the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and presidential power.

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