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As wars wind down, Congress revisits presidential powers

Over many decades, Congress has effectively ceded much of its power to declare war to the presidency, leaving some lawmakers in both parties uneasy.

A severe sandstorm blanketed a convoy from the Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division north of the Euphrates River in Iraq, on March 25, 2003. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

Written by Jennifer Steinhauer

The House voted on Thursday to revoke the authorization it gave in 2002 to invade Iraq, a step that would rein in presidential war-making powers for the first time in a generation.

The bipartisan action reflected growing determination on Capitol Hill to revisit the broad authority that Congress provided to President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks through measures that successive presidents have used to justify military action around the world.

The 2002 authorization was repeatedly applied well beyond its original intent, including in a campaign much later against the Islamic State group in Iraq and for the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani last year.

The vote was 268-161, with 49 Republicans joining 219 Democrats in favor of the bill. The debate now moves to the Senate, which is expected to take up similar legislation as the US military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly two decades of fighting there.

“To this day, our endless war continues costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in a war that goes way beyond any scope that Congress conceived, or intended,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who has fought for nearly two decades to remove the authorizations, said on the House floor.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said on Wednesday that he would put a similar measure on the Senate floor. A blueprint written by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., will be considered next week by the Foreign Relations Committee.

President Joe Biden said this week that he would sign the House measure, making him the first president to accept such an effort to constrain his authority to carry out military action since the war in Afghanistan began 20 years ago. Biden’s decision came on the heels of announcing a full troop withdrawal from the country.

The congressional action amounts to a rare debate over presidential war powers and the degree to which the conditions that led the House and Senate to give Bush broad authority after Sept. 11, 2001, should be left in place. Over many decades, Congress has effectively ceded much of its power to declare war to the presidency, leaving some lawmakers in both parties uneasy.

Even if the Senate joins the House in repealing the 2002 authorization, Congress would still leave in place a much broader authorization, passed three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, on approving the use of force against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Successive presidents have cited the 2001 authorization to justify operations against “associated forces,” and critics say it has given presidents excessive latitude to wage “forever wars” without further congressional approval in the Middle East and beyond.

Until now, the Senate has refused to bring up legislation to repeal the authorization of military force, and the House has done so only as an amendment to broader legislation that never went anywhere. But recent support for repeal of the 2002 authorization — once almost nonexistent in either party in the Senate — has greatly increased across the political spectrum, a product of war fatigue among lawmakers, a majority of whom were not in office in 2001 and 2002, and the veterans who fought in them.

“It has been nearly 10 years since this particular authorization has been cited as a primary justification for a military operation,” said Schumer, who voted for the 2002 measure, known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force. “It no longer serves a vital purpose in our fight against violent extremists in the Middle East.”

Scores of Republicans joined Democrats in the House repeal, in spite of aggressive pushback from Rep. Michael McCaul, the highest ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While he agrees the authorizations should go, he said, it must be replaced, and he questioned the timing of the vote. “This, in my judgment is not a serious legislative process,” McCaul said. “This feels like yet another political effort to undo one of President Trump’s bold US counterterrorism successes.”

At least five Senate Republicans, including Young, have signed on to that chamber’s measure. Several others said this week that they were open to considering the repeal.

“I think the AUMF’s have been interpreted too broadly,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “I’m for Congress asserting its powers in war.”

A broad coalition of anti-war interests see a vote to repeal the 2002 measure as a step across the threshold of a bigger and perhaps long-term effort to chip away at presidential imperatives.

“This is one battle in a long war,” said Dan Caldwell, a senior adviser at Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative organization.

Many Republicans — and some Democrats — are likely to resist.

“We want to keep the 2001 one,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. If the 2001 authorization is maintained, Inhofe said, “then the 2002 one would be expendable.”

Unlike declarations of a major conflict like World War II, authorizations for use of force are typically intended for limited use for a specific mission or region like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

By repealing the 2002 authorization and spurring debate about the 2001 measure, lawmakers and their supporters hope that Congress will gain new leverage to approve engagements as they come up.

In turn, they believe, presidents will be more politically sensitive to using their powers to carry out military actions absent specific approval from Congress. Kaine, for instance, said Biden’s recent airstrikes in Syria, which he ordered without congressional authorization, “show that the executive branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers.”

President Barack Obama more or less dared Congress in 2015 to debate the use of military force abroad, but both parties refused for opposite reasons. Republicans were loath to grant Obama authority because they disapproved of his foreign policies, and Democrats were still stinging from the vote in 2002 to authorize the war in Iraq.

But time and the resident of the White House have shifted the ground, and a broad group supports a repeal of the 2002 authorization including the conservative Heritage Foundation and Concerned Veterans for America, as well as VoteVets, a liberal nonprofit group that supports Democrats, and the American Legion, the veterans’ advocacy group.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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