Myths about Congress's war powers
Rumors about the role of the US Congress in starting and stopping America's wars needs grounding in fact.
University Park, Md.
It's enough to make a history teacher blush – all the myths out there about the role of the US Congress in starting and stopping America's wars. Before lawmakers vote in September on bills to pull American troops out of Iraq, we at least ought to get the record straight as to what Congress can and cannot do.Skip to next paragraph
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Myth No. 1: Only Congress can declare war, then the president is in charge as commander in chief.
Highly misleading. Congress clearly has the power to declare wars, but it has done that in only five conflicts. Another 15 times, it has passed laws specifically authorizing the use of force but without using the "W" word. Among those times were 1991 and 2002 against Iraq and 2001 against those involved in the 9/11 attacks. Dozens of other times, presidents have sent US troops into action and Congress took no specific action, usually because the operation was small in size and short in duration.
Under the Constitution, Congress also has the power "to raise and support armies," "to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces," and "to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia," now called the National Guard. That means Congress can increase or shrink the size of our forces, decide what missions they should be equipped for, and set rules, for example, regarding the treatment of prisoners.
The commander in chief can give direct operational orders, but he is constrained by laws and the funds approved by Congress.
Myth No. 2: Congress can't set limits on troop deployments.
It's been done before, and presidents have complied. President Franklin Roosevelt felt so constrained by the law he signed in 1940 forbidding sending draftees outside the Western Hemisphere that he signed an order declaring that the hemisphere extended as far as Iceland so that he could legally station troops there and send supply ships partway to Britain.
President Nixon accepted the law passed by Congress in 1969 forbidding deployment of ground combat troops into Laos or Thailand. President Reagan accepted the 1983 law allowing US troops to use force only in self-defense. President McKinley accepted the law barring the annexation of Cuba in 1898. Even President George W. Bush has accepted the law limiting the number of US military and contractor personnel who can be sent to Colombia.
Myth No. 3: The only way to stop the war is for Congress to cut off funds for the troops.
That would work; it's been done before. But it's pretty drastic. In 1973, with US combat troops withdrawn from Vietnam but offensive air operations still continuing, President Nixon accepted a law forbidding funds for any further air combat after Aug. 15. He earlier accepted a law forbidding the reintroduction of US combat troops into Cambodia.
What works best is when Congress demands what presidents are already willing to do. In 1919, President Wilson announced the withdrawal of US troops from intervention in Soviet Russia after a tie vote in the Senate on a nonbinding resolution. Four years later, President Harding decided to withdraw US troops from occupation duty in Germany after Senate passage of a resolution calling for that. In 1993, President Clinton accepted a law requiring all US combat troops to be withdrawn from Somalia by March 1994 – a date certain he had already promised.
Amendments likely to be considered in Congress in September limiting the deployment of troops to Iraq unless they have met certain training, equipment, and readiness standards are within established precedents for legislative action.
Myth No. 4: Congress can't prevent the president from going to war against Iran, Syria, or North Korea – or anywhere else – if that's necessary to protect US lives and vital interests.
Untrue. It can stop the president but it's unlikely to. The blanket prohibitions like those enacted regarding Laos or Vietnam would be effective, but there are enough possible circumstances in which the use of force against Iran or North Korea might be both urgent and broadly supported that Congress wouldn't want to draw red lines preventing action. And measures insisting on prior authorization of force sound good but lack teeth.
In short, contrary to many myths, the historical record shows that Congress has broad powers to authorize and limit the use of force, and to restrict operations in Iraq – if it can muster the majorities to enact laws, over the president's veto if necessary.
Charles A. Stevenson is the author of "Congress at War: The Politics of Conflict since 1789."