Tomorrow, Congress will be returning to Capitol Hill after being away from Washington for over a month. There, they will begin debating the highly controversial decision to conduct military strikes against Syria for breaking international law and using chemical weapons. As pundits and lawmakers gear up for a technical discussion over this matter, one of the most critical issues will be whether or not Obama has the authority to act without the consent of Congress. This matter is specifically legislated by the War Powers Act, which dictates the limits of the president’s powers as Commander in Chief.
What is the War Powers Act?
The War Powers Act was first signed into law right after the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941, and were designed to greatly expand the executive branch’s authority over the war machine. This gave president Franklin Roosevelt the power to direct government agencies as he saw fit to help the war cause.
Today, when we refer to the War Powers Act, most people actually mean the War Powers Resolution, which Congress passed in 1973. It is designed to limit the executive power to wage war without Congressional approval. It states that the president cannot commit troops unless Congress has declared war, or “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
In practice, the Act requires the president to inform Congress within 48 of ordering military action, and limits troop commitment to 60 days, with a 30 day possible extension, unless Congress approves the action.
Is this Constitutional?
The constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution of 1973 has been debated since its passage. The Constitution is incredibly vague when it comes to which branch of the government has the power to conduct war. Congress has the power to declare war, build and support an army, and controls the funding of the military. The president serves as the Commander in Chief, which means he acts as the leader of the armed forces.
Starting in the 20th century, it became incredibly uncommon for the United States to actually declare war, with the president choosing to avoid declaration so as to act as he saw fit, without Congressional approval. The War Powers Resolution attempts to keep Congress in control of the decision to use military force in a day of age when official declarations of war are rare.
Any legislation that Congress attempts to pass dealing with going to war or prohibiting military action still has to be signed by the president, and can be vetoed. This check in the system limits Congress power to outright demand that the president stop using the armed forces.
How will Obama interpret the resolution?
During the 2011 campaign in Libya, there was some grumbling that President Obama had violated the War Powers Resolution by keeping military involvement going past the 60 day mark without seeking Congressional approval. The White House counsel claimed that the president didn’t need to, since the campaign in Libya was lead by NATO, not the United States. The House of Representatives held a vote to officially challenge this interpretation.
The fact that President Obama is seeking Congressional approval for action in Syria before it even commences, shows that he is dedicated to honoring the traditional interpretation of the War Powers Resolution. However, it is unusual that he would ask for Congressional approval before acting, rather than conducting military strikes and then seeking authorization from Congress as is usually done. It’s important to note that Obama does have the legal right to embark on military strikes at any point during the debate in Congress, and continue military strikes for 60 days even if Congress votes no on Syria.