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Why Congress Is Allowing Obama to Use Military Force

Congress has a Constitutional obligation to approve use of the military. These days, though, Congress thinks the cost of exercising its role is simply too high.

December 7, 2015

The Congress shall have Power…To declare War unless the decision on the use of military force is too vexing or requires too much legislative effort or does not offer partisan advantage or may cost incumbent members of the Senate and the House of Representatives votes in a future election.

—Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution as currently practiced in Congress

Barack Obama’s 13-minute address to the nation was as over-packed with themes (domestic terrorism, the war in Syria, gun control and tolerance for Muslims) as the Oval Office was cluttered with a lectern placed in front of the presidential desk. In fact, there were moments during the nothing-to-fear speech when the president in his uninflected tone appeared to be conducting a scientific experiment to prove that the bully pulpit no longer exists.

But Obama was unequivocal when it came to the failure of Congress to vote to ratify the new war in the Middle East: "For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of airstrikes against ISIL targets. I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united, and committed, to this fight." Yet ten months after the president sent specific legislative language to Capitol Hill, Congress has shown only halting interest in debating, modifying or voting on the resolution.

Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine has been in the forefront with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake of a small bipartisan group pressing for a vote on the bombing campaign against the Islamic State. In a recent interview with Zach Beauchamp from Vox, Kaine bluntly explained why his congressional colleagues are cowering over taking a binding stand on the latest war in the Middle East:

The members of Congress are afraid to vote on war, period…There is no harder vote than a war vote. There is no vote that could be as unpopular as a war vote. A war vote that leads to the use of military forces, even if everything works exactly as planned and perfectly, is still going to have negative consequences. You’re probably going to lose some wonderful young men and women. Then things usually don’t work perfectly—even if successfully, they don’t work perfectly. I see in my colleagues a huge desire to avoid being accountable."

To avoid accountability (and a vote that may become an albatross like Hillary Clinton backing the Iraq War) congressional leaders have twisted themselves like corkscrews to justify their inaction on passing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). “We have the authority right now under the existing AUMF," House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed at a mid-November press conference. "And we’ll revisit all of these issues later.”  

“Revisit” is, of course, a Washington euphemism for the Twelfth of Never.

The Obama administration also believes that the 2001 AUMF approving war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan legally covers the current bombing campaign against the Islamic State. But 14 years after September 11th, that resolution has been stretched further than a ball of Silly Putty during nursery school recess. It is akin to Ronald Reagan using the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to provide a legal fig leaf for the invasion of Grenada.

Congressional authorizations for the use of military force (as an alternative to a formal declaration of war) date back to the Napoleonic Wars and the Barbary pirates. The 1973 War Powers Resolution—passed over Richard Nixon’s veto—gave Congress additional clout. Under this post-Vietnam legislation, a president could not continue a military operation for more than 60–90 days without explicit congressional approval.

What we are witnessing today is something both rare and baffling—Congress voluntarily ceding this power back to the White House.

Normally, power in Washington is hoarded. But instead Congress is saying, in effect, the War Powers Resolution brings with it too much trouble. Legislators fail to see a partisan advantage in crafting an AUMF for Syria or a way to use the legislation for campaign fund-raising. So why bother to try to compromise on differing visions of the resolution defining the mission of the bombing campaign over Syria? These days, it seems politically safer to rail about Benghazi or blame George W. Bush for the rise of the Islamic State than to risk casting a binding vote on a new authorization for military force.

This congressional timidity is symptomatic of a larger problem—the breakdown of the norms of governing. Not only does Washington not work, but the voters have also caught on to the dirty little secret. A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center found that trust in government to do the right thing is close to a six-decade low. Fewer than one in five Americans (19 percent) have faith in the government to do the right thing most of the time.

Pollsters have long been asking a variant of the same question, and the responses over time show the dramatic erosion of trust in government since the optimistic post-war years (73 percent in 1958). Even after the 1970s—a downbeat decade defined by Vietnam, Watergate, OPEC boycotts and the Iranian hostage crisis—more than a quarter of the electorate maintained their faith in government.

But now the nation has reached such a low ebb that in the latest Pew Research Center survey, 74 percent of Americans believe that “most elected officials put their own interests ahead of country’s.” Judging from the way that Congress has ducked taking a stand on the war against the Islamic State, it is hard to argue with this cynical verdict.  

It is a truism that actions have consequences. But deliberate inaction has consequences as well. And the sad thing is that many members of Congress believe they are fooling their constituents as they flee from their constitutional responsibilities to decide whether to wage war. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

(Photo: AP)