Most of the time since the passage of the 1973 War Powers Act, Congress has largely punted when presidents undertook major military operations. Members preferred to sit back, applauding successes and criticizing setbacks. Lawmakers complained about not being consulted, then voted for "support for the troops," but they rarely reconciled their differences before sending a law to the
There are strong arguments in favor of military action related to American credibility and revulsion against Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians. There are also strong arguments against using force without the blessing of some international organization and in such a limited, symbolic way that is deliberately not intended to affect the outcome of the conflict in Syria.
Rather than viewing this debate as a chance to score political points, Congress should seize it as an opportunity to craft a broader policy on Syria. Decide how to respond to the chemical attacks, presumably with authorization for a limited reprisal raid. Decide what to do for the 2 million refugees who have fled the country. Decide what kind of military aid and training to give which opposition factions. Give the president a consensus policy bill and pressure him to carry it out.
Chances are that a majority in Congress do not want a large-scale
U.S. history provides a broad menu of options for dealing with presidential requests for an authorization of force.
In five conflicts, Congress voted to declare war. That formula hasn't been followed since World War II, however, because lawmakers didn't want to trigger the vast array of domestic laws — giving the president enormous control over the economy and calling into question the validity of contracts and insurance — that come into force when the "W-word" is used.
On 16 other occasions, Congress authorized the use of force but didn't formally declare war. On at least six recent occasions, Congress took votes but never sent laws to the president supporting or opposing major military operations — in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.
On several occasions, Congress was asked to approve military actions and refused. In 1812, lawmakers defeated a bill sought by President James Madison to occupy and establish a government in eastern Florida.
Congress also has specifically banned certain military operations favored by the president. Lawmakers prohibited sending U.S. ground troops into Laos or Thailand in 1969. They banned aid or military activities in Angola in 1976 and in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Sometimes Congress has set conditions on military involvement. In 1898, Congress declared war against Spain to liberate Cuba, but it ruled out annexation of the island — largely because U.S. sugar interests didn't want the competition. In 1983, Congress approved U.S. participation in a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Lebanon, but it insisted that the mission be defensive and not take sides in the Lebanese civil war. In 2001, Congress rejected the blank-check language to fight terrorism proposed by the Bush administration and limited the authorization of force to only those connected to the
If lawmakers really care about Congress' war powers under the Constitution, they should step up to the plate now.