David Adler: The Cheney residence is a house divided

GUEST OPINION: WAR POWERS

May 29, 2014 

David Adler

It's worth wondering whether portions of Lynne Cheney's recently released biography, "James Madison: A Life Reconsidered," caused a stir in the home she shares with her husband, former Vice President Dick Cheney, over one of the most important constitutional questions of this, or any, period in American history: Which branch of government - Congress or the president - has the authority to take the nation to war?

Lynne Cheney, a professionally trained historian, got it right. She concludes that the Constitution, more the handiwork of Madison than any other single delegate to the Constitutional Convention, grants to Congress the authority to initiate war on behalf of the American people. She acknowledges the pivotal role that Madison played in drafting the War Clause of the Constitution, although she seems to clench her teeth while making that concession. Indeed, Cheney might have spread pages of evidence before readers as a means of sweeping away any doubts about the repository of the war power, just as she aims in this biography to "clear away misconceptions" about Madison.

But give her credit. Her brief, grudging acknowledgment that Congress, not the president, possesses the constitutional authority to take the nation to war might have had something to do with the fact that her scholarly conclusion is a public rebuke of the position assumed by her husband, who has maintained for at least 40 years that the president enjoys the unilateral constitutional power to take the nation to war.

Scholars are trained to draw conclusions from the evidence, a professional task that requires a considerable measure of discipline, particularly when circumstances, including political interests and agendas, threaten to intervene and, perhaps, distort what might be described as unavoidable conclusions. Did the Cheneys ever quarrel about this fundamental question, as important to Madison as any other that he addressed in the Constitutional Convention? Did they bring new meaning to the term "pillow talk?"

Since his days in the Richard Nixon administration, and as chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, Cheney consistently complained of an "imperiled" presidency shackled by Watergate reforms. The War Powers Act of 1973, he claimed, had "usurped" the authority of the commander in chief. From the Iran-Contra scandal through his leadership as secretary of defense during the Gulf War, to his service as vice president when he asserted a powerful voice for initiating war in Iraq, Cheney has contended that the framers of the Constitution vested the war power in the executive. As vice president, he maintained that the Bush administration "restored" the presidency to the framers' vision - a constitutional constellation, he claimed, that championed unilateral presidential war-making.

But his wife's conclusion - grounded in the evidence - that delegates to the convention, led by Madison, had granted the war power to Congress shreds her husband's position. Indeed, no delegate to the Constitutional Convention ever claimed that the war power belonged to the executive. Vice President Cheney's view finds no support in the text or the architecture of the Constitution. Moreover, no member of the various state ratifying conventions ever entertained Vice President Cheney's theory.

At the dawn of the republic, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered several decisions exalting congressional control over matters of war, embracing Madison's declaration that Congress has complete authority to "commence, continue and conclude war." The court has never overturned those early rulings, which held that the president has no authority to initiate hostilities without authorization from Congress.

Vice President Cheney's theory of unilateral presidential war-making finds no second in the Constitutional Convention, the career of James Madison or, apparently, in the Cheney home.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service