Most Americans who have taken a civics course are aware that the Constitution, in Article 1 Section 8, grants the legislative branch the authority to declare war. However, it appears that our country’s lawmakers have either forgotten this or are instead choosing to pass the buck on to President Obama to avoid their Constitutional obligation to declare war on ISIL.
Last Thursday’s vote in the House of Representatives on a bipartisan amendment offered to the 2017 Defense Appropriations Bill is yet another example of this dereliction of duty by Congress.
House Armed Services Committee member Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) authored an amendment to the appropriations bill that will cut off funding for the war against ISIL unless the Congress passes a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) by April 30, 2017.
At the heart of the issue is the question of whether or not the AUMF passed in 2001 gives President Obama the authority to fight a war against ISIL in 2016. While the scope of the AUMF written in 2001 is widely debated, it is difficult to imagine even the most broad interpretation of the law being used to justify force against an entity that didn’t come into existence until 2006, five years after the law was passed. However, even if lawmakers are willing to overlook the legality of fighting an unauthorized war, they should not strip the American people of their voice in the process.
Our founders expressly gave Congress the authority to make decisions on war and peace for two reasons: to serve as a check on executive power and to give the people a voice in matters of foreign policy. When Congress allows the President to continue to wage war without explicit congressional approval, they are in effect denying the American people the right to be involved in our nation’s foreign policy.
Congress’ inaction also ignores the advice of those in the Pentagon. Both Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford have asked Congress to pass a new AUMF. In addition, President Obama sent Congress a new AUMF in February of this year, but Congress has taken no action.
In an Armed Services Committee hearing in December of last year, Congressman Jones asked
General Dunford and Secretary Carter if they would like to see Congress pass a new AUMF. Dunford responded by saying “I absolutely believe that a clear statement of support for the men and women prosecuting the campaign and our allies would be absolutely helpful.” Echoing similar statements, Carter said that a new AUMF would “show to our troops that their country is behind them.”
The desire to debate and pass a new AUMF is not simply an attempt to change the foreign policy of the Obama Administration. The lawmakers pushing for a new AUMF correctly interpret their role as being the ones ultimately responsible for putting Americans in harm’s way; they simply want to do their jobs. Congressman Jones made this explicitly clear during debate on the house floor.
Speaking to his colleagues Jones stated, “If we want to meet our Constitutional responsibility, and we held up our hands to swear to God that we would, then lets not send our young men and women to die around the world based on 2001 and 2002”
In a Facebook post on June 6th, Senator Rand Paul vowed to force the Senate to vote on an amendment to the Senate version of the defense bill “that will state in no uncertain terms that the president cannot use vague out-of-date authorities to send our troops to war”. Paul went on to say that “one generation cannot and should not bind another generation to perpetual war. Our Constitution mandates that war be authorized by Congress. Period.” It is unlikely that the Senate will adopt Senator Paul’s amendment, but he and his house counterparts deserve credit for standing up and forcing debate on this issue.
One might wonder why Congress is choosing to yield its responsibility to authorize the war against ISIL, but I think the answer is quite clear. Congress is choosing to cede war powers to the President in an attempt to evade future responsibility for their decisions. If the war goes badly, individual members of Congress do not want their political opponents to use their vote on the AUMF against them.
By continuing to pass the responsibility of foreign policy decision making on to the President, Congressmen and women are choosing to put their own political interests first. This is a shame to the Constitution, the men and women in uniform, and the American people.