Once confirmed, Congress should listen to Mattis’ advice

By Daniel DePetris

Late last week, after three hours of testimony in the Senate Armed Services Committee, Congress passed legislation that would allow former General James Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense. Because the law requires a commissioned officer of the United States to wait seven years after retirement before serving as the Pentagon’s top civilian official, Congress had to change the law in order to provide Mattis with a chance to be confirmed. The general impressed members of the Committee enough that they moved the new provision immediately after his hearing, with only three members opposing it.

Mattis’ clearing across Congress also tells another story, and that is when the congressional leadership in both parties views an issue with enough seriousness and urgency, the legislative branch can move at a fast-pace.

It took only three days for the Armed Services Committees and the full House and Senate to approve a change in the law, a speed that usually only occurs if the federal government is running out of money or if the Administration approaches Capitol Hill, hat-in-hand, for emergency funding request.

The fact that Congress moved Mattis’ nomination so quickly is partly a tribute to what many national security players in Washington already believed about the former general: His four-decades of experience in the Marine Corps, his climbing to the top echelons of the military bureaucracy, and his universal respect among both political parties make his nomination as Secretary of Defense a no-brainer to many politicians. Yet one cannot escape a much broader theme — that if the House and Senate are willing and able to do their jobs, they can often put aside partisan blame-shifting in pursuit of a larger goal.

If confirmed, General Mattis will enter the Pentagon with a full plate waiting for him.  Continuing the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will be one of his top priorities, and Mattis will need all the help he can get if he is to effectively prosecute a war that is now in its third year. Thankfully, Congress can use the same urgency that it approached the Mattis nomination to help the Defense Secretary with that task, and what better way to do so than by providing the Pentagon with a fresh congressional authorization for the use of military force? 

I’ve written repeatedly about the criticality of the legislative branch fulfilling its most solemn responsibility under our system of government: authorizing the Commander-in-Chief to use the full weight, power, and influence of the U.S. military overseas to defeat an enemy. Indeed, those calls — also made by many others, such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — have fallen on deaf ears by the congressional leadership. But we now have a potential Secretary of Defense who is on record as being a forceful advocate of the legislative branch’s power during wartime, and a former war commander himself who understands that passing a war resolution is one of the best ways that the United States can show unity of purpose to its troops in the field and to the enemy America is seeking to vanquish. 

In a piece for the Hoover Institution, Gen. Mattis intimated that congressional action on matters of war and peace is in itself a war-fighting tactic. “A strong Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), supported by a majority of both parties in both houses of Congress,” Mattis wrote, “will send an essential message of American steadfastness to our people and to the global audience. Its passage will demonstrate our country’s fundamental unity and enable a broader commitment to deal firmly with a real and growing menace.” 

Mattis expanded upon that view during his confirmation hearing last week, where he stated that, “Congressional oversight and appropriations, authorizations, are a critical part of civilian control of the military.” The general couldn’t be more correct in his view. 

On behalf of the American people who sent them to Washington to advocate for and represent their interests, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have just as much of a right — indeed, a duty — to be a principal protagonist on when the men and women in uniform should be sent into harms way in order to defend the American people and the country’s national security interests. The president is enshrined with the status of Commander-in-Chief in the Constitution, but it is the Congress that has the power to determine when the President transitions into that role.

For more than a decade, the Congress has passed the buck on this responsibility, meanwhile America’s uniformed men and women have been put into dangerous situations in Iraq and Syria on the barest of legal rationales — an authorization for the use of force that was passed a week after the September 11 attacks, over fifteen years ago, at a time when the Islamic State wasn’t even in existence. 

If Congress trusts Mattis to do the right thing on behalf of the U.S. military and agree with much of what the general says, then they should also act upon what a 41-year military professional argues is instrumental during a time of war: a legislative branch following the war-making direction outlined in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by National Review Online on January 21, 2017. Read more HERE