President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Nicole Hockley and families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in the Oval Office, April 11, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
In the aftermath of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s immediate response was to appear before a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war. Despite the fact that an attack on US soil had killed and wounded thousands of Americans, despite the clear threat of additional attacks, Roosevelt honored the separation of powers as defined by the Constitution, along with the clear requirement that “the Congress shall have power…to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
No president since Roosevelt has respected the Constitution sufficiently to seek a formal declaration of war.
They have had plenty of excuses: a United Nations Security Council resolution, a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a “consultation” with congressional leaders. They have interpreted the War Powers Act broadly. They have simply done as they chose.
But they have not obtained the formal declarations of war required by the Constitution.
It is easy to blame presidents for this.
But the blame is shared with successive Congresses, which have lacked respect not only for the founding premises of the republic but for their own role in a system of checks and balances. And a growing number of House and Senate members, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, are recognizing that, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee says, “Congress must assert our authority on this issue.”
The British Parliament did just that, voting "no" to intervention.
Does the British Parliament have more of a say when it comes to warmaking that the United States Congress?
The framers of the US Constitution certainly did not intend that this would be the circumstance. But in coming days we will learn whether the Constitution still applies.
As preparations are made for war with Syria—and, should anyone be confused on this point, missile strikes meet the definition of warmaking—Secretary of State John Kerry is making public pronouncements aimed at explaining and justifying what could be a unilateral response to reports that chemical weapons were deployed in the strife-torn country.
Kerry says that “the administration is actively consulting with members of Congress.”
But “actively consulting” is not the same as securing a clearly stated declaration of war. Indeed, Congressman Justin Amash, an antiwar Republican from Michigan, argues that striking Syria without a congressional authorization is “unquestionably unconstitutional.”
Amash flatly declares that, if a vote were held, “it would fail.”
Even if Amash is wrong, the reality is that Congress must be in session for a declaration to be made.
And at this point, the House and Senate are on recess.
But that cannot be an excuse for Congress to stand down.
Seventy-nine percent of Americans surveyed for the latest NBC News Poll say that President Obama should seek congressional approval before taking any military action. According to NBC: "nearly seven-in-10 Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans say the president should be required to receive congressional approval before taking any action."
More than 150 members of the House and Senate have formally expressed the same view: calling in letters to the White House for a debate and for a vote on whether to go forward with a military intervention.
“There is no greater decision for a country to make than the decision to go to war,” argues Congressman John Garamendi, D-California. “For that reason, the President has the responsibility to seek authorization from our nation’s elected leaders before initiating military action. Our leaders in Congress have a similar responsibility to the American people to demand this constitutionally-required authority and to evaluate any potential US military intervention abroad. The past decade has amply demonstrated the folly of military commitments poorly conceived. Our brave men and women in uniform deserve better. The American people deserve a full explanation of the situation, the pending action, the strategic goal, and the potential outcomes.”
Garamendi this week joined Congressman Walter Jones Jr., R-North Carolina, is penning a bipartisan letter specifically asking President Obama to seek congressional authorization before launching any military intervention into the Syrian conflict.
“As stated in the War Powers Resolution of 1973, absent a Congressional declaration of war or authorization for the use of military force, the President as Commander-in-Chief has constitutional power to engage the US armed forces in hostilities only in the case of a national emergency created by an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” reads the letter. “As none of these criteria have been met, we believe it is Congress’s right and responsibility to be fully briefed on any potential plans to engage in military action in Syria, to assess whether such an intervention is in the national security interest of the United States and our allies, and to withhold or grant authorization for the use of military force based on this assessment.”
Another letter, authored by Congressman Scott Rigell, R-Virginia, and signed by 116 members (ninety-eight Republicans and eighteen Democrats) declares that “engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
Rigell has been one of the House’s most consistent critics of undeclared wars since his election in 2010 to represent a district with a large population of current and retired military personnel. And he is particularly pointed when it comes to the prospects of an assault on Syria, arguing that “Congress is not a potted plant in this process, and President Obama should call us back into emergency session before authorizing the use of any military force. We stand ready to share the burden of decisions made regarding US involvement.”
Rigell asserts that “proactive consultation with Congress and explicit, definitive authorization” is necessary. And like Garamendi and Jones, he rejects the premise that the president has the authority under the War Powers Resolution to intervene militarily in Syria as a response to the government’s reported use of chemical weapons against civilians.
The congressman told CQ Roll Call that, because a US intervention would have as its purpose a “humanitarian objective,” the War Powers Resolution does not apply. In the absence of an authorization from Congress, presidents are supposed to be able to initiate warfare only in a national emergency associated with a foreign attack on the United States. In the absence of a “national emergency,” the Armed Forces Committee member explained to the Capitol Hill paper, if the president proposes to intervene in Syria, “then, indeed, prior to—prior to!—not after the fact, he needs to call Congress into session.”
That premise has bipartisan and ideologically diverse support in the House. Among the signers of the Rigell letter are libertarian Republicans such as Amash and progressive Democrats such as Rush Holt of New Jersey and Pete DeFazio.
Other Democrats are stepping up to raise concerns about the rush to war.
Congressman Lee, the California Democrat who cast a lonely vote against the blanket authorization of the use of force after the September 11, 2001, has obtained 54 signers for her own letter asking the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis,” and is more specific than most members in stating her opposition to intervention. Among the signers so far are Congressional Black Caucus chair Martha Fudge, D-Ohio, and the the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison and Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, as well as key House Democrats such as Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and John Lewis of Georgia.
“While the use of chemical weapons is deeply troubling and unacceptable,” Lee says. “I believe there is no military solution to the complex Syrian crisis. Congress needs to have a full debate before the United States commits to any military force in Syria—or elsewhere.”
Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, says: “The United States must remain cautious and pragmatic in our response. The last decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated what comes of war waged with poor planning. We cannot haphazardly enter another conflict with a sovereign nation. Questions still remain about the identity and intentions of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, and I believe we need clear answers before moving forward.”
Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has worked closely with antiwar groups such as Progressive Democrats of America to dial down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that, while he is “deeply troubled by reports that the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons against their own people…. We must also remain very cautious about military intervention in light of the terrible price our soldiers and their families have already paid in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
A lack of caution on the part of Congress more than a decade ago haunts America to this day.
The need for a real consultation of Congress this time, for an honest debate and for clear House and Senate votes on whether to authorize the use of US military force against Syria, is confirmed by bitter experience. And by the Constitution.
Walter Jones is precisely right when he says, “For too long, the legislature’s responsibility to authorize military force has been overlooked. It is time that we uphold the Constitution, which makes it clear in Article 1, Section 8 that Congress alone holds the power to declare war.”
The media finally raise alarms about attacking Syria.