On June 4, 2015

Congress: “War powers? What war powers?”

By Lee H. Hamilton

A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power . . . allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”

It has been three months since President Obama sent his proposal for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” focused on ISIS to Capitol Hill. It has gone nowhere.

This is mind-boggling. On the most important question government faces—military intervention overseas—Congress seems unable to stir itself to hammer out an agreement with the president. You can blame the president for this or you can blame Congress—each side comes in for its fair share—but inaction only expands the power of the president, leaving him to make hugely consequential decisions by himself.

It’s a shocking dereliction of duty on Capitol Hill.

This is going to be a long and difficult conflict. It raises tough questions about the scope of the president’s powers, the duration of those powers, the definition and identity of the enemy, the extent of the field of battle, and America’s fundamental role in the world. The decision to apply American lives and resources to such a war is momentous, and as a country we need to know how far we’re willing to commit ourselves.

If we are going to send U.S. forces into dangerous places, they need to go in with the public backing that comes from a formal authorization hammered out in Congress. Both the president and Congress are dragging their feet on this, but that only helps the President, not the country. It leaves him—and most likely his successor—with dangerously broad authority to use military force without restriction, in perpetuity. This is not how a democracy like ours should operate.

The American people are beginning to understand all this. They overwhelmingly believe that Congress needs to weigh in on the government’s war-making powers. Yet that seems to mean nothing to Washington.

“Cowardly and shameful,” Sen. Kaine said. That pretty much sums it up.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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