Opinion

Sending the U.S. to war is not the president's call

That power is Congress's alone; don't hand it over.

By

In the United States, the decision to go to war rests with the elected representatives of those who will do the fighting and dying. It's one of the defining – and critical – elements of the republic.

Our nation's founders purposely rejected the European custom of kings starting wars essentially by decree. Instead, the drafters delegated war powers to the legislative branch of the new government.

That constitutional assignment of power to Congress has not always been followed in practice. And it's in jeopardy now.

Presidents of both parties have sought to arrogate the power to go to war into the executive branch. In one recent and notable example, senior advisers to President George W. Bush asserted that he had no constitutional obligation to seek authorization from Congress for use of force in Iraq.

It is easy to blame the president for this state of affairs. He has, after all, advanced a theory and practice of executive supremacy in national security matters that most constitutional scholars find contrary to the tenets of this republic's very principles.

But disappointingly, the incremental power grab by the executive branch has often been met by a silent abdication of Congress's authority and neglect of its duty.

A commission led by former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher recently issued a proposal to replace the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution of 1973 with a new law to clarify which branch of government has authority to take the nation to war.

Regrettably, the Baker-Christopher commission – like too many well-intentioned critics and commentators – has started with the wrong question: Can the president act alone, or must he consult?

That approach turns the Constitution on its head. The proper question is whether the president has any constitutional role in authorizing the use of force, except when he acts to defend the nation against actual or imminent attack. Under the Constitution, his role is to recommend undertaking a war and, if Congress approves, to conduct the war as commander in chief.

The commission focused on the failings of the War Powers Resolution instead of looking for guidance to the war powers provisions in the Constitution. Articles I and II are explicit: The Congress has the exclusive authority to decide if and when we go to war, while the president has the exclusive authority to decide how we wage that war.

Giving war-deciding power to the legislative branch and war-conducting to the executive was purposeful and strategic. This division of authority and responsibility remains integral to the fabric of the country.

As James Madison once observed, "In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department... [T]he temptation would be too great for any one man."

If there has ever been such a thing as a "limited" war, it is now a thing of the past. Our world is too small, too interconnected, and too well-armed for us to assume that "police actions" can be neatly contained any longer. We cannot afford to entrust the might of the American military to one person, no matter how many advisers he may have.

The men and women in uniform will certainly be called to arms again to deal with some new threat or act of aggression. It is imperative that the decision to send them in harm's way is made by Congress.

For these reasons, we take strong exception to the deference the Baker-Christopher Commission would have us give to the president to start "limited" wars and to override a congressional rejection of war. That suggestion is certainly at odds with the commission's proper call to Congress to live up to its constitutional responsibility.

Every member of Congress takes an oath to "faithfully discharge the duties" of the office. The authority to send American troops into combat is an essential duty of Congress, a heavy burden that can be borne only by the people's representatives. Members of Congress must treat the power to go to war as theirs and theirs alone.

The consequences of war are too grave for us to settle for anything less.

• Mickey Edwards (R) of Oklahoma and David Skaggs (D) of Colorado are former members of Congress and co-chairs of the Constitution Project's War Powers Committee. Mr. Edwards teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is a vice president of the Aspen Institute. Mr. Skaggs is executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Their views are their own.

[Editor's Note: The original version misstated the writers' political affiliations.]

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