David Adler: Congress needs to be vigilant on War Powers Act

June 26, 2014 

"If citizens are unwilling to study the processes by which foreign policy is made, they have only themselves to blame when they go marching off to war."

- Arthur Schlesinger

The same may be said of Congress. If members fail to vigorously debate-and determine for the nation-the relative merits of renewed hostilities in Iraq, and fail either to authorize or prohibit President Barack Obama from unleashing our military forces, they have only themselves to blame if America becomes embroiled in the sectarian warfare that has plagued Iraq for more than a thousand years.

If members fail to perform their constitutionally enumerated duty to decide whether the United States will initiate military hostilities against a foreign foe, and permit Obama to engage in unilateral presidential war-making, then the citizenry should blame lawmakers for acquiescing in the face of executive usurpation of the war power. Assignment of accountability in a system governed by a written Constitution is not an exercise in trivial pursuit. It is, rather, a critical means of maintaining the rule of law and exalting wisdom in the formulation of policy, whether foreign or domestic.

Abraham Lincoln, like George Washington before him, grasped the importance of locating political and constitutional accountability. In response to a letter critical of his conduct of the Civil War, Lincoln defended his decisions and concluded: "I blame you for blaming me." Washington, mindful of the fact that his every act would be precedent-setting, expressed to friends and colleagues that his greatest concern was to avoid being labeled a "usurper." Presidential usurpation of power, after all, represents contempt for the right of the people to govern themselves through the Constitution.

Congress, for many years a doormat in the realm of national security matters, has shown signs of its own surge. Last week, the Republican-led House approved by voice vote an amendment to the defense bill requiring the president to seek authorization from Congress for military action in Iraq. Funds would not be expended for military purposes in Iraq without prior authorization from the legislative branch.

For those who have harbored hopes that Congress might redeem itself after a half-century of abdicating its constitutional authority over matters of war and peace, this action, based on a proposal by two Democrats, represented not only an assertive congressional defense of its constitutional turf but a welcome exercise in bipartisanship.

This matter is now before the Senate. Reports indicate that senators have mixed views on whether Obama requires congressional authorization to order missile strikes on the various factions marching toward Baghdad. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, have said that the president may act unilaterally. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on the other hand, has stated that Obama must obtain congressional approval before commencing military hostilities.

Americans are entitled to a vigorous debate on the merits of renewed U.S. engagement in Iraq before military forces are deployed to any of the many battlefields that now characterize Iraq. Obama has initiated the deployment of special operations forces and advisers to fortify the U.S. Embassy and to protect American personnel, which is within his authority.

But further military action will require congressional approval. It is true that the Obama administration has filed a report "consistent with" the War Powers Act of 1973, which regrettably provides the president with a 60-day window to use military force, but that statute also provides that Congress may terminate any military actions undertaken by the administration. Congress should commence a great debate immediately.

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.

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