A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power… allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”
Those were strong words, meant to spur Congress to action. Yet after a day or two, they sank without a trace. No one in the media picked up the call. No one in a position to influence the Senate or the House made a move to advance a congressional war authorization.
Indeed, it has been three months since President Obama sent his proposal for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” focused on ISIS to Capitol Hill. It, too, met with a brief flurry of attention and then went nowhere.
This is mind-boggling. If you had any question that we’re at war, the bombing runs over Ramadi and the recent Delta Force raid that killed an ISIS official should have settled it. On the most important question government faces — military intervention overseas — Congress seems unable to stir itself to hammer out an agreement with the president. You can blame the president for this or you can blame Congress — each side comes in for its fair share — but inaction only expands the power of the president, leaving him to make hugely consequential decisions by himself. It’s a shocking dereliction of duty on Capitol Hill.
Why do I say this? The Constitution vests in Congress the power to declare war, but should that mean that Congress also has the responsibility to do so?
Let’s start with this: Former acting CIA director Michael Morell recently said that the “great war” against Islamic terrorists is likely to last “for as long as I can see.” This is going to be a long and difficult conflict. It raises tough questions about the scope of the president’s powers, the duration of those powers, the definition and identity of the enemy, the extent of the field of battle, the kinds of force that should be used, America’s vital interests, and its fundamental role in the world.
The decision to apply American lives and resources to such a war is momentous, and as a country we need to know how far we’re willing to commit ourselves. The president needs backing for a military campaign, and the discussion about what it ought to entail needs to be open and rigorous.
I understand that this is a lot for Congress to undertake. A resolution authorizing the use of force is tough to draft — Congress needs to make the parameters and goals of military action clear without hindering our ability to respond to a fluid situation or micromanaging the executive branch. And, of course, it’s just as tough politically. Some members will want to give more powers to the president, others less. No one wants to be on the wrong side of a war vote.
But the difficulty of a task is no reason to avoid it. If we are going to send U.S. forces into dangerous places, they need to go in with the public backing that comes from a formal authorization hammered out in Congress. This does not mean enacting a resolution after we’ve intervened — because then it’s an argument about supporting our troops in the field, and only a few members will vote against that.
Both the president and Congress are dragging their feet on this, but that only helps the president, not the country. It leaves him — and most likely his successor — with dangerously broad authority to use military force without restriction, in perpetuity. This is not how a democracy like ours should operate.
The American people are beginning to understand all this. They overwhelmingly believe that Congress needs to weigh in on the government’s war-making powers. Yet that seems to mean nothing to Washington. “Cowardly and shameful,” Sen. Kaine said. That pretty much sums it up.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.