Why Congress is concerned about the 'war powers' of the president
The two most dramatic news areas in the world right now are Lebanon and Grenada. In both cases the President of the United States sent US armed forces there.Skip to next paragraph
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Does this mean, then, that a president has so much power he can do as he pleases?
Well, not exactly.
It is true that the president of the United States is generally regarded as the most powerful man in the world. This is partly because the US is so powerful. It is also because the Constitution gives the president a lot of power.
Here are some of the things that the president can do:
He can appoint his own Cabinet. This is the team of people drawn from the heads of 13 major departments that help run the government.
He also appoints judges to the US Supreme Court and ambassadors to foreign countries. Actually what the president does is to propose these appointments. The Senate must approve them.
The important thing to remember, though, is that the president does not have absolute power.
The Constitution is drawn up in such a way that there is a system of checks and balances operating in government. The idea is that no one branch of government can dominate. This is just as true of the executive, represented by the president, as it is of the legislature (represented by Congress).
The result is that for every action a president takes, the Congress is watching closely to see that the president doesn't grab too much power.
Take the case of war. This aspect has been very much on people's minds since Grenada and Lebanon shot into the headlines in the last few weeks.
The Constitution is very specific about this. It says that the power to declare war belongs to Congress. But the Constitution also provides that the president of the United States be commander in chief. What that means is that the president is in charge of all US armed forces. As you can imagine, that can lead to problems between the Congress and the president about what the troops should do when sent out on a special mission.
There are times, such as the Lebanon crisis or the Grenada crisis, where the President feels sending troops to some trouble spot in the world is for the good of the country.
There are times when Congress fully agrees with what the president does, as it did in the early stages of the Vietnam war. But the mood of the country and of Congress changes from time to time. Sometimes Congress is not so happy with the arrangement of having the president call all the shots. So there are occasions when the Congress feels the president should not have a completely free hand in doing what he thinks is right.
Because of this the US has a war powers act. In recent weeks we have heard a good deal about this resolution.
What it all adds up to, is that Congress wants to be part of the action. Congress says that whenever troops are sent abroad, both the president and Congress should have a say about how long those troops should stay.
The result of that attitude was the war powers act, passed a decade ago, in 1973. It was passed at that time because Congress felt that President Lyndon Johnson and later President Richard Nixon had taken strong military actions in Vietnam that were getting the country ever more deeply involved. The war powers act was intended to put some curbs on what the president did. The mood of Congress at that time was that the president was taking away, or whittling down, its warmaking power.
Every single president since the war powers act was passed 10 years ago has grumbled about this resolution, because he felt it limited his powers as president.
Now the war powers act doesn't stop the president from taking military action. What it does do, though, is provide a deadline as to how long the troops can be stationed abroad. This limit is set at 60 days. But Congress can extend it to 90 days. The only way that that can change is if Congress decides it is in the best interests of the country to keep the troops longer. Right now a 60-day limit has been put on US forces in Grenada. If they do not come back before then , President Reagan may have a big fight on his hands with Congress. This would certainly be the case if the President wanted the troops to stay longer and Congress was trying to get the troops back home.
The Lebanon situation is a little different. The US marines sent to Beirut were sent not to attack, but to act as a peacekeeping force. Congress has given them a special 18-month stay in Lebanon. But if Congress feels they are not acting as a peacekeeping unit and have taken on a combat role, then the conditions for keeping them there will change.