Go To Congress, Mr. President, Ctd

An expert from the in-tray weighs in:

I am a political scientist, and my research focuses on executive power and the American warfare state. I’m writing in response to the ongoing discussion about the Obama administration’s tenuous legal rationale to wage war against ISIL without requesting permission from Congress. Most legal scholars that you cite agree that a congressional authorization is constitutionally required in order to carry out extended air strikes. You pushed this normative case even further, balking that “Obama…has blown a hole so wide in any constitutional measures to restrain the war machine that he has now placed future presidential war-making far beyond any constraints.”

However, there are very logical (if troubling) reasons why presidents continually assume the prerogative to carry out their national security agendas unilaterally, and why Congress’ power to declare war has become nearly obsolete.

Although the US Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to declare war, this prerogative is only meaningful if Congress also exercises strict budgetary authority over the military. For most of the nation’s history, Congress’ tight control over the defense budget required that presidents not only obtain formal legislative authorization for military operations, but also that they secure funding, weapons and armies from Congress in order carry out large-scale military endeavors. However, the formal power to declare war is rendered almost entirely symbolic in era in which legislators overwhelmingly support large military budgets, procure sophisticated military technologies and refuse to limit funding for imprudent, reckless or unpopular wars.

Since President Truman referred to the Korean War as a “police action” (using a semantic sleight of hand to explain the absence of a congressional declaration of war), Congresses have furnished presidents with the armies, weapons systems and funding to wage war regardless of the legality of their actions. Presidents have assumed the prerogative to project American military power and exercise force abroad as they see fit, and they have received so little pushback from Congress, the courts or the American people that it often appears as though this outcome was the result of deliberate planning. Obama is no different in this regard than most of his predecessors who also found that inheriting an executive monopoly over vast arsenals of military equipment was too irresistible to bother with constitutional formalities. In fact, most Americans hardly notice that intensifying air strikes in Iraq and Syria even raise constitutional questions.

By maintaining large military budgets at all times and refusing to limit the war funding available to presidents, Congress has essentially relinquished any meaningful authority over the decision about how, when and whether to go to war. Congress’ blank check mentality with regard to war funding also promotes military solutions to complex foreign policy problems, and empowers presidents to carry out their national security agendas independently.

The cost of bombing ISIS is already closing in on $1 billion. And Eisenhower wept.