Congress’ Attempt to Curtail Presidential War Making Powers

The Founding Fathers, 9/11 and a sixty-word blank check.

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash
Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

Concerned that a president might gain too much power from conducting a war, America’s Founding Fathers gave the power to authorize military action to Congress as the branch most accountable to the people. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1798, James Madison wrote:

“The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature.”

On Thursday, the US House of Representatives voted to force President Trump to seek Congressional authorization before continuing further military action against Iran. It thereby invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which meant to curtail the president’s ability to commit the US to an armed conflict in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This week’s Congressional measure will likely remain symbolic. Yet it reignites the debate about the gradual increase in presidential power over the past decades. What happened?

The watershed moment was the aftermath following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, after which US Congress handed George W. Bush virtually a blank check to go after the perpetrators and combat international terrorism. The resolution, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), was only 60 words long and specified no end date. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, continued to invoke the AUMF to go after groups that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Most recently, Donald Trump invoked the AUMF to justify the military strike that killed Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani last week.

It is now up to the US Congress to reclaim the power it has always been intended to have.

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