When it was proposed during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the sole power “to make war” be vested in the Congress, the measure carried overwhelmingly. Only one delegate favored granting the authority to the executive branch, South Carolina’s Pierce Butler and his proposal was greeted with horror by his fellow delegates. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war.” George Mason of Virginia explained that he was against empowering a president to declare war because an individual could “not be trusted with it.” Charles Pinckney of South Carolina closed the debate by declaring, “In a democratic republic, it is essential that the decision to go to war be made by the most broadly representative body: the legislative.”
Fully conscious of the threat that an executive bent on illegitimate warmaking could pose to the republic, the founders took great care to structure a governing system based on checks and balances. The Congress was charged with the task of declaring wars; the president, as commander-in-chief, was given the power to pursue military action.
Each of those duties came with profound responsibilities. The Congress was required to analyze all the arguments for sending American troops into combat, review the costs and consider the long-term diplomatic, political and moral consequences of so serious a decision. The president’s role, as head of the executive branch, was to serve as a guide and a resource — providing insights on the best approach and assuring that the legislative branch had the information in needed to determine whether war is necessary.
Last fall and winter, as the Bush administration agitated for war with Iraq, the too-powerful leadership of the Congress failed to live up to its most basic responsibility: the checking of a presidential rush to war. Despite demands from millions of citizens, Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate allowed their chambers to serve as little more than rubber stamps for a president who desperately needed to be checked and balanced. And they ultimately pushed through a vague resolution that was presumed to require the White House to work with the United Nations to address questions of whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a threat to the rest of the world.
Millions of Americans demanded that Congress take seriously its responsibility to balance the executive, and some members of the House and Senate listened. U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, U,S, Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Barbara Lee, D-Cal., and representatives such as Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, and John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, made valiant attempts to get the Congress to do its duty. In particular, Byrd, Kucinich and Conyers continued to challenge the administration. But, while they asked the right questions, they were isolated in a Congress where leaders refused to give official sanction to a necessary dialogue about the Bush administrations arguments and “evidence” for warmaking.