Congress Must Say Yes or No to War

by , October 09, 2002

Last week, during a hearing in the House International Relations committee, I attempted to force the committee to follow the Constitution and vote to declare war with Iraq. The language of Article I, section 8, is quite clear: only Congress has the authority to declare war. Yet Congress in general, and the committee in particular, have done everything possible to avoid making such a declaration. Why? Because members lack the political courage to call an invasion of Iraq what it really is – a war – and vote yes or no on the wisdom of such a war. Congress would rather give up its most important authorized power to the President and the UN than risk losing an election later if the war goes badly. There is always congressional "support" for a popular war, but the politicians want room to maneuver if the public later changes its mind. So members take half steps, supporting confusingly worded "authorizations" that they can back away from easily if necessary.

It’s astonishing that the authorization passed by the committee mentions the United Nations dozens of times, yet does not mention the Constitution once. Congress has allowed itself to be bypassed completely, even though much is made of the President’s generosity in "consulting" legislators about the war. The real negotiations took place between the Bush administration and the UN, replacing debate in the people’s house. By transferring its authority to declare war to the President and ultimately the UN, Congress not only violates the Constitution, but also disenfranchises the American electorate.

I don’t believe in resolutions that cite the UN as authority for our military actions. America has a sovereign right to defend itself, and we don’t need UN permission or approval to act in the interests of American national security. The decision to go to war should be made by the U.S. Congress alone. If Congress believes war is justified, it should give the President full warmaking authority, rather than binding him with resolutions designed to please our UN detractors.

Sadly, the leadership of both parties on the International Relations committee fails to understand the Constitution. One Republican member stated that the constitutional requirement that Congress declare war is an anachronism and should no longer be followed, while a Democratic member said that a declaration of war would be "frivolous." I don’t think most Americans believe our Constitution is outdated or frivolous, and they expect Congress to follow it.

When Congress issued clear declarations of war against Japan and Germany during World War II, the nation was committed and victory was achieved. When Congress shirks its duty and avoids declaring war, as with Korea, and Vietnam, the nation is less committed and the goals are less clear. No lives should be lost in Iraq unless Congress expresses the clear will of the American people and votes yes or no on a declaration of war.

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