In a speech in September, Obama insisted that he already possessed all the legal authority he needed to launch airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria, though he added vaguely: "I welcome congressional support for this effort." But in his State of the Union address, he shifted gears and called on Congress "to show the world that we are united in this mission" by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against Islamic State.
Yet the White House hasn't provided Congress with language for such a resolution (saying it wants to get input from Congress first). Nor has it enunciated a clear position on what should happen to two previous Authorizations for Use of Military Force that it has unconvincingly cited as justification for the war against Islamic State.
Faced with the administration's passive-aggressive attitude, Congress should exercise its constitutional responsibility by authorizing and placing limits on that war. A bill introduced this week by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), similar to one he proposed in the last Congress, does both.
The Schiff resolution would authorize military action against Islamic State for three years, but only in Iraq and Syria. Military action could not include the deployment of "ground forces in a combat role," though military advisors and special operations forces would be allowed. That retroactively ratifies Obama's decision to send 3,000 advisors to Iraq.
Schiff's bill also would immediately repeal the 2002 resolution allowing military action against Iraq (the authorization for President George W. Bush's invasion of that country) and would sunset after three years the 2001 resolution authorizing force against the planners of the Sept. 11 attacks. The latter has proved particularly malleable, serving as the Obama administration's legal justification for actions against a variety of militant groups as well as the targeted killing in Yemen of Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen.
Given the liberties the Bush and Obama administrations have taken with the existing congressional authorizations, Schiff is right to include time limits and to codify Obama's insistence that he doesn't intend to commit "boots on the ground" to this conflict. Nothing prevents Obama or his successors from seeking additional authority later.
Even without the deployment of ground forces, the U.S. is embarked on a large-scale and long-term military campaign to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State. It's unconscionable that Congress has not yet voted on this commitment. It must expeditiously do so, with or without a script from the White House.
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