Measures passed by the House last month to reassert congressional authority over military action in Iraq and Iran are dead on arrival in the Senate and would ultimately face a veto by President Donald Trump anyway. But House passage — with some Republican support — makes an important statement about a broader issue: the need to rein in presidential war-making powers that for decades have been growing beyond what the Founders envisioned.
The Constitution vests in Congress the power to declare war, but it's a power Congress has been unwilling to enforce in more than 75 years. Since the last formal war declaration during World War II, America has waged the Korean War, the Vietnam War, both Iraq wars, Afghanistan and military involvement in a host of smaller conflicts — without formally declaring war in any of them. Instead, lesser congressional actions, including the Authorization for Use of Military Force, gave wide latitude to presidents to immerse the United States in combat. Congress has essentially abdicated one of its most important responsibilities.
A war declaration officially puts congressional skin in the game, but congressional authorizations serve more as a blank military check that presidents can cash at will. Congress responded to the attacks of 9/11 by passing a 2001 authorization giving President George W. Bush open-ended power to use military action to go after the perpetrators. A subsequent 2002 authorization gave Bush a green light for military action in Iraq.
Those two authorizations are still in force and, together, have been used by three successive presidents to justify military adventures in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere. The Trump administration most recently invoked the 2002 authorization in its January drone-strike assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.
If that doesn't sound like it has anything to do with the original purpose of the 2002 authorization — to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be nonexistent — that's the whole point. Open-ended authorizations are used to justify basically whatever a president wants to do militarily, while allowing Congress to keep its hands clean of any formal war declaration.
Everyone wins except the soldiers, the American people and the Constitution.
The two House measures passed last month seek to repeal the 2002 authorization — approved to authorize a war that ended nine years ago — and to block funding for future military action in Iran without congressional approval.
Lacking any chance of becoming law with the current Senate and president in place, the House action must stand for now as a principled message to future leaders who may be more serious about the constitutional process for use of American force — and to a public that has become too comfortable letting presidents go it alone.
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