Did you hear the one about restoring Congress's war authority?
A democratic-socialist who made two serious runs for president, an ardently conservative Utah senator, and a liberal Connecticut senator who has emerged as a foreign-policy wonk walk into a bar and — decide it’s time for the U.S. Constitution to be followed when it comes to matters of war and committing soldiers to combat.
OK, that’s not much of a punchline and the proposal from this unlikely alliance of senators was probably not cooked up in a bar, but if it manages to gain bipartisan traction it would mark a historic recalibration of the balance of power, and one that is badly needed. No joke.
The “National Security Powers Act” was introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the “independent” who twice ran unsuccessfully to become the Democratic presidential nominee; Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah senator who didn’t vote to convict President Trump of impeachment; and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism.
On domestic policy matters, Lee has almost nothing in common with the Connecticut Democrat and the Vermont independent. However, they share the concern that when it comes to wars and arms sales, the balance of power has shifted dangerously to the executive branch.
The National Security Powers Act seeks to reestablish Congress’s Article 1 constitutional authority, which states clearly that it is the legislative branch that has the power to declare war. It has not done so since declaring war on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Yet, somehow, the nation has had plenty of wars since, in which more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers have died.
“The founders envisioned a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government on national security matters,” stated Murphy. “Before it’s too late, Congress needs to reclaim its rightful role as a co-equal branch on matters of war and national security.”
“We have become far too comfortable with the United States engaging in military interventions all over the world,” Sanders said.
“America’s global standing, treasure, and brave servicemembers are being lost in conflicts the people’s legislators never debated,” noted Lee.
Murphy was correct in saying, “Congress has acquiesced to the…unchecked power of the executive.”
It is politically easier to leave such weighty decisions to the president. These can be tough calls. So, through a series of bills, Congress has effectively handed off its constitutional authority: the War Powers Act of 1973; the broadly written National Emergencies Act of 1976; and the AUMF, or authorization for the use of military force adopted in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks, have greatly expanded the presidential authority to get the nation involved in wars.
The proposed National Security Powers Act would reintroduce limits on the president’s ability to commence and sustain military attacks; require the affirmative vote of Congress for large arms sales to other countries; and give Congress greater power to block a president from using emergency declarations to pursue open-ended military commitments.
A president could continue “hostilities” no more than 20 days without congressional authorization. If a military campaign is in the nation’s interest, a president should be able to garner that authorization. If he, or she, can’t make that case, something is wrong.
Likewise, Congress would have to, within 30 days, affirm a presidential emergency declaration or that declaration ends. And there are various sunset provisions to prevent ongoing conflicts without Congress reaffirming support.
Might these steps go too far in usurping executive authority, hamstringing a president’s ability to protect national security? That is a good debate to have. But to some significant degree Congress should reassert its authority. My expectation is that the result would be fewer U.S. involvements in foreign conflicts.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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