Editorial: The House’s half-baked effort to take its war powers back from Trump
Now that President Trump has pushed the United States closer to yet another armed conflict in the Middle East, congressional Democrats and a smattering of Republicans are trying to reassert Congress’ power to decide when the U.S. goes to war. What’s taken them so long?
The Constitution makes the president commander in chief of the armed forces, but it doesn’t allow him to wage war unless Congress authorizes it. Lawmakers put some statutory teeth into that restriction after Presidents Johnson and Nixon vastly expanded the war in Vietnam based on the vague and open-ended 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: They passed the War Powers Act in 1973 to require presidents to notify lawmakers within 48 hours of using the military, and to limit any military action to 60 days unless Congress gives the green light.
Over the last decade, however, Congress has shown little interest in enforcing the act, allowing Presidents Obama and Trump to deploy U.S. fighters in Libya and Syria for sustained periods of time without a declaration of war. Instead, lawmakers looked the other way as Obama and Trump claimed, incredibly, that the deployments didn’t amount to acts of war or that they were covered by the authorizations Congress passed in 2001 and 2002 for the fights against Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, respectively.
It takes political courage to go on the record in favor of or against war — no one wants to be seen as undermining U.S. troops or weakening American resolve, nor do they want to be excoriated later for supporting a war that proves unpopular (President George W. Bush’s Iraq war is Exhibit A of that phenomenon). But whether to go to war is the most consequential policy decision members of Congress can make. There’s no excuse for ignoring their constitutional responsibility and giving the president a free hand to entangle the United States in conflicts around the world without oversight.
Lawmakers should have passed a new authorization for the use of military force against Islamic State in 2015, when Obama sought one. They did not do so. To this day, they still need to repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations and adopt new rules for the fights in Afghanistan and against Islamic State militants.
On Thursday, House Democrats tried a new approach. They passed a resolution on a largely party-line vote that, in the extremely unlikely event the GOP-controlled Senate also passed it, would direct Trump to stop using U.S. troops in “hostilities” against Iran, unless needed to defend against an imminent attack against the United States or its troops — which is exactly what Trump says he was doing when he ordered the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani and dangerously escalated the tensions with Iran. The resolution seems destined to be an empty gesture, a purely symbolic protest against Trump’s precipitous action.
For their part, Senate Democrats have proposed a resolution that would bar the use of U.S. forces against Iran in 30 days unless Congress authorized otherwise, and they have some GOP support. But that, too, misses the point. Lawmakers need to decide whether the United States is or should be at war in the Middle East, and, if so, with whom. Otherwise, Trump will continue to grab war-making power by stretching the boundaries of the 2001 and 2002 authorizations past their breaking point.
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