THE HILL BLOG
In 1973, in my first job in Washington, D.C., I helped to pass the War Powers Resolution. At the time, it seemed like a good idea.
The country was reeling from the Vietnam War that had proved so divisive and caused so many casualties. Many blamed Presidents John F. Kennedy for surreptitiously getting the country into a war, Lyndon Johnson for using falsehoods to win approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Richard Nixon for his secret plan to end the war that led to many more years of fighting and dying.
War powers advocates argued that the measure was essential for Congress to reassert its power to make war that had atrophied since the declaration of war against Germany and Japan in 1941 – the last time Congress so declared.
President Harry F. Truman ignored Congress when in 1950 he sent troops to Korea to stave off a North Korean advance into the South. Almost 1.8 million Americans fought in Korea, with some 33,600 American deaths. But there never was a congressional authorization, and Congress continued to appropriate funds to prosecute the war.
The War Powers Resolution also appeared to be a check against Nixon’s power, a President recently overwhelmingly re-elected who was becoming more and more enmeshed in the Watergate scandal.
Indeed, I played only a bit role, helping to convince some liberals such as Representatives Bella Abzug (D-NY) and Robert Drinan (D-Mass.) that Congress was not ceding additional power to the President by giving him or her 60 or 90 days to conduct war without approval of Congress.
Fast forward to today. Every President since 1973, including Barack Obama, has decided to ignore the law as an unconstitutional assertion of power or reinterpreted it as with Libya.
Congress has been deaf, dumb and blind to this lack of presidential compliance. Oh sure, Members give tough speeches, but they won’t stop the wars. The don’t want to be blamed if the conflict goes sour.
Congress has the means to fight back: the power of the purse. Even if the Supreme Court would have ducked a constitutional confrontation between the Executive and Legislative branches on war powers, Congress could have cut off funds for the many conflicts since that time.
But Congress has blinked time and time again, most recently on Libya. On June 24, the House of Representatives refused to authorize U.S. military action in Libya but also refused to limit funding. Last week, the House delivered similar confused messages.
Many Members of Congress have denounced Obama’s war. Rather than denounce Obama – or Bush in Iraq or Reagan in Panama or Truman in Korea – they should protest their own inaction.
For the fault, Dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in the lap of Congress.
Or as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Even if the House eventually votes to cut off funds for Libya, the Senate is not likely to go along. Even if the Senate were to go along, the President could veto the measure and a two-thirds majority would be required to overcome the veto.
The time has come. If Presidents and Congress are going to ignore legislation, it is no better than an appendix. It is time to expunge the law. Better to have no law rather than one that is ignored by all parties.
John Isaacs is Executive Director of Council for a Livable World, and has been active on national security issues before Congress since 1972.