By Daniel DePetris
This past Wednesday, for the first time in nearly sixteen years, the United States Senate debated an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) measure that, if enacted, would have rescinded the 2001 and 2002 war resolutions that codified the generational struggle that is the war on terrorism. The amendment, which would provide Congress with six months to craft a new and updated AUMF more in tune with today’s strategic environment, was offered by Sen. Rand Paul (R - KY) and attached to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—a bill that is widely categorized in Washington as one of the only must-pass piece of legislation in town.
While the amendment was tabled in a 61-36 vote after a short floor debate yesterday, Sen. Paul’s stubbornness on this issue for so many years has been, and unfortunately remains, the only forcing mechanism pushing fellow senators to do the bare minimum expected of them by voters and our men and women in uniform: debate and vote on whether to wage war.
Ideally, Congress as a whole wouldn’t need poking and prodding from a single lawmaker to begin discussing—and using—one of the most cherished powers that the Founders have placed in the legislative branch: declaring war or authorizing force. Senators and members of Congress, standing idle while the executive branch drifts without a clear strategy for advancing America’s interests overseas—a failure that has taken the U.S. into at least eight countries over the past decade, with no end in sight—would assert themselves and demand such a coherent, effective strategy from the president.
Regrettably, we aren’t living in the ideal. Instead, we live in a time when ducking political accountability and traveling the path of least resistance has more political value for a lawmaker’s career than upholding the U.S. Constitution—a sacred document that each member pledges to uphold every time they are sworn into office.
Sen. Paul’s parliamentary maneuvers, while frowned upon by Senate leadership and indeed with many of his colleagues, was a noble attempt to force Republicans and Democrats alike to put their money where their mouths are. If they love the Constitution so much and are so fond of our country’s tradition of democratic accountability and separation of powers, they ought to prove it on the floor of the Senate in full view of the voters who put them into office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s argument that Paul’s behavior and his amendment was “irresponsible," producing "nothing but uncertainty for our deployed forces and for our allies” is a weak talking point thoughtlessly uttered for the political establishment's base—the same political establishment that prefers chirping form the sidelines instead of being a main player in the game.
But what is far more irresponsible is the legislative branch operating on auto-pilot for so many years, exposing itself time and again as a rubber-stamp body uninterested in participating in a meaningful debate about the many conflicts in which the U.S. is engaged.
Sen. Paul’s effort, holding up a major bill that authorizes programs for the Defense Department and paves the way for funding the Pentagon is not exactly the kind of move that builds goodwill in the Senate.
Yet one can’t begrudge Rand Paul for taking significant action to get Congress to do its job—regular order has broken down for far too long..
Sen. Paul is just one senator, but he represents a large and growing number of Americans who believe the power disparity between the executive and legislative branches is in serious need of repair and realignment. When a 39% Americans agree with the statement that Congress should impeach a president who fails to receive congressional approval before sending U.S. forces into military action, it’s a safe assumption that the American people are beyond disturbed and embarrassed by Capitol Hill’s inaction since the last war resolution was passed in 2002. What Paul did channeled that popular frustration into the Senate chamber, trying to kick off a debate many Americans hoped would have happened sooner.
It’s no longer acceptable for lawmakers in Washington who earn a six-figure salary from the American taxpayer to hide behind their desks when it comes time to take a hard vote.
If there is a shining light in this episode, it's that more and more members of Congress realize it’s becoming politically unacceptable to avoid a war vote. Paul’s amendment may have been tabled—for now—but the spirit behind that amendment lives on. Our armed forces have the courage to risk their lives—Congress should have the moral and ethical courage to do their job, and do what’s right: vote on this most solemn decision.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on September 14, 2017. Read more HERE.