It should not be hard for any member of the US House of Representatives, to declare, as Representative Ro Khanna did this week, that “it’s time for Congress to step up and reclaim our authority.”
But that proved to be too great a lift for 194 members of the House who, on Thursday, rejected a simple reassertion of the core constitutional premise that Congress, not the president, decides whether this country goes to war.
Khanna was one of 224 House members who got it right, when they voted for a resolution “directing the president pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran.” In so doing, they sent a message that was summed up by Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan:
Today, Congress asserted its Constitutional authority over military action and passed a resolution pursuant to the War Powers Act to restrain President Trump’s continued reckless actions against Iran. We have no trust in an administration that has provided zero evidence of an imminent threat to America, destroyed all diplomatic channels with Iran, and deployed over 15,000 additional troops to the Middle East since last May. The American people do not want an endless war with Iran, they want diplomacy and de-escalation.
Pocan is hoping that the House and the Senate will do more to restore a proper balance to decisions about war and peace. “Now,” he says, “Congress must also move forward in passing Representative Barbara Lee’s legislation to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq and Representative Ro Khanna’s legislation prohibiting funding for a war with Iran. Congress has been silent for too long—it’s time we reclaim our Constitutional authority over military action from presidents intent on fighting forever wars.”
That’s a sound vision for upholding the commitment that members of the House make at the start of each term to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” At the heart of that oath in a commitment to a system of separated powers in which the House has a duty to check and balance the executive.
But what of the congressional ciphers who abandoned their oaths, dismissed the dictates of the Constitution, and signaled that they are ready and willing to preserve an imperial presidency?
Of the 194 “no” votes, eight came from Democrats: Ben McAdams (Utah), Anthony Brindisi (New York), Joe Cunningham (South Carolina), Kendra Horn (Oklahoma), Stephanie Murphy (Florida), Josh Gottheimer (North Jersey), and Elaine Luria (Virginia). Their votes were wrongheaded, and every bit as disappointing as Republican votes against the resolution.
While the critical mass of the Democratic Party was on the side of checking and balancing the president, the vast majority of Republicans chose a different course. Only three House Republicans sided with the Constitution: Thomas Massie, of Kentucky, and two Floridians: Francis Rooney and Matt Gaetz. They were joined by Michigan independent Justin Amash.
A stunning 186 Republicans fell in line with Trump’s call for members of his adopted party to choose him over their oaths, tweeting,
Hope that all House Republicans will vote against Crazy Nancy Pelosi’s War Powers Resolution. Also, remember her “speed & rush” in getting the Impeachment Hoax voted on & done. Well, she never sent the Articles to the Senate. Just another Democrat fraud. Presidential Harassment!
The resolution was not a fraud. It was a necessary response to a president who has disregarded the system of governance outlined at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. On Thursday, Amash explained:
The administration has provided no evidence to qualify its recent military action as a necessary defensive response to an imminent attack. Moreover, it absurdly relies on the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force and Article II of the Constitution as legal justifications.
The 2002 AUMF provides for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime. It is not a valid authorization for any current engagement in Iraq, and it certainly does not apply to actions against Iran.
Article II is not an independent grant of authority for nondefensive military action. The president’s role as commander in chief no more allows him to enter offensively into conflicts than his role as executive allows him to make laws.
Amash, who was elected repeatedly as a libertarian-leaning Republican, made that statement as the chamber’s lone independent member. He left the GOP last year, out of frustration with Trump’s abuses of power—and Republican failures to counter them.
But it is important to recognize that there is no Democratic or Republican or independent way to read the Constitution when it comes to the exercise of war powers. As Pocan, the cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says, “Congress holds the sole power to declare war, and we refuse to let Donald Trump wage a wholly avoidable and endless war with Iran.”