Congress should no longer avoid the war debate

By Daniel DePetris

The hot, sweltering, muggy summer in Washington, D.C. is here, and that means one thing: Congress is preparing to adjourn for several weeks after a legislative session that has been dominated by partisan infighting and very little legislative accomplishment. Not a single piece of significant legislation has been passed, and this isn't limited to appropriations bills, sanctions measures, or healthcare reform. We are also talking about the legislative branch's most solemn and important responsibility under the U.S. Constitution: declaring war or at least authorizing the use of military force.

Indeed, over the last several years, the war on terrorism has expanded into new theaters of combat, encompassing terrorist groups that were not even in existence when President George W. Bush began the campaign against Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network in October 2001. At the time of this writing, the U.S. military is either conducting bombing runs, combat missions, or counterterrorism operations in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan.

A congressional resolution originally crafted to provide the president with the power to retaliate against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks has turned into a blank check to drop munitions or send American troops against any band of terrorists that may pop up in the mountains of Waziristan or the fields of Somalia.

In our constitutional system, Congress is an independent and co-equal branch of government just as responsible for war as the Commander-in-Chief. Many lawmakers, however, have gradually transmitted this responsibility to the executive branch over a decade and a half and across three presidencies. A vocal minority in both the House and the Senate recognize just how dangerous this development is, because it subverts the entire democratic system by depriving the American people with a voice in the process.

But the congressional neglect is also disturbing for a far more fundamental reason; by default, the power to plunge the U.S. into an armed conflict is decided by a single individual in the President of the United States, based on that individual's sole determination of what is and is not in the U.S. national interest. As James Madison rightly observed 219 years ago, "[t]he Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it." The country has unfortunately forgotten Madison's words over the last 15 years, operating as if it is the president's job and the president's job alone to not it outright.

Over the last several years, more and more lawmakers are beginning to realize the extent of the power disparity between the legislative and executive branches on matters of war. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees each held a public hearing on the subject this summer, inviting constitutional scholars and former national security officials to testify about whether an new AUMF is necessary and what should or shouldn't be included in it.  This Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be speaking with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a private session about the administration's views on the subject. This is the first time those in the executive branch have been asked for their input and a welcoming break from the largely apathetic behavior the American people have seen from their elected officials in years past.

At least half a dozen lawmakers from both political parties have filed their own AUMF drafts in an effort to stimulate their colleagues to start taking the issue with the seriousness it deserves. At least in the rank-and-file, the momentum for a more assertive legislative branch is growing––so much so that the House Appropriations Committee voted to include a measure in the annual defense spending bill to sunset the 2001 AUMF in eight months, hoping that this would spur Congress into passing an updated version. The amendment was later stripped out of the bill courtesy of Speaker Paul Ryan.

The eagerness of the rank-and-file has yet to reach the offices of the congressional leadership. The excuses offered are as varied as they are disjointed: it is not the right time to debate the war on terrorism; there is no room on the legislative calendar; a defense bill is not the appropriate vehicle to discuss a subject of such immense importance; bridging the gap between and among lawmakers on how extensive the president's authority should be is simply too difficult, so why even try? To the U.S. soldiers advising Iraqi security forces at the front and to the American taxpayers who are paying for these military operations at a time of tens of billions of dollars a year, the country's elected representatives aren't pulling their weight.  

If congressional leadership will not authorize a debate––and there is no reason to believe they will––the committee chairmen who have jurisdiction over the writing of a military authorization bill shouldn't wait any longer. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) are making the right decision by holding hearings, but merely talking about the issue cannot be the end of the process. It will be up to these two men to allow an AUMF measure to work its way through committee and to the floor as regular order dictates and as the Founders of the country expect. For the sake of America's democracy, the Constitution, and the Americans sacrifice their lives and their wallets to fight and pay for these wars, let's hope that they will use their power to shock Congress out of submission.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Military Times on August 7, 2017. Read more HERE.