The Future of Congressional War Powers

Do the presidential candidates know what the Constitution says about how the country goes to war?

If he is elected president, Mitt Romney will take an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. Yet he has proudly declared that he doesn’t believe in the Constitution—at least in the clear and unambiguous language that the right to declare war belongs to Congress. 

The former Massachusetts governor already has embraced discredited neoconservative nostrums about foreign policy. There apparently is no war in which he does not want to intervene, including Syria. He is particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of bombing Iran. 

Now he says he will not be bound by the Constitution. On CBS’s Face the Nation he declared: “I don't believe at this stage, therefore, if I'm president that we need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force. The president has that capacity now.” At least candidate Romney took a position this year. Back in 2008, he said “You sit down with your attorneys and [they] tell you what you have to do.” So much for reading the Constitution. 

Presidents often have used the military without legislative authority, but most such actions have been limited and many had colorable congressional backing. Despite modern presidents who claim the unilateral authority to bomb and invade other nations, many of America’s strongest chief executives recognized Congress’s authority. 

For instance, President George Washington said: “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.” Abraham Lincoln praised the Founders for recognizing war “to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.” 

Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought declarations of war for the conflicts that defined their presidencies. President Dwight Eisenhower, a former general, said he would not go to war without legislative authority. George W. Bush sought authority to attack Iraq. Even President Barack Obama, charged by his critics with attempting to extirpate American liberty, admitted that he cannot unilaterally attack Iran. (He did, however, claim the right to attack Libya since it was not a war. George Orwell, call your office!) 

During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama explained: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Candidate Hillary Clinton explained: “I do not believe that the president can take military action—including any kind of strategic bombing—against Iran without congressional authorization.” Senator Joseph Biden threatened President Bush with impeachment if the latter bombed Iran without congressional assent since the Constitution gave “Congress the power to initiate all hostilities, even limited wars.” 

No doubt, few people would be surprised if President Obama forgot his promise and decided to act unilaterally. Indeed, in recent congressional testimony Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested that the administration cared more about getting “international permission” than congressional authority for possible intervention in Syria. But Romney apparently doesn’t believe that the Constitution even theoretically applies to executive war-making. 

The Founders didn’t believe they were creating that kind of presidency. Alexander Hamilton wanted something akin to a king, but the vast majority of his fellow constitutional convention delegates did not. The American colonists broke with Great Britain in response to abusive, untrammeled executive power. They didn’t want to recreate that system. 

Moreover, the early Americans understood, as Randolph Bourne observed, that “war is the health of the state.” The most abused, least controlled monarchical power was war-making. James Madison warned: “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instrument for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” 

Madison and his fellow delegates also didn’t trust sinful human beings with expansive, unreviewable power. John Jay warned that discreditable motives often led kings “to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.” Pierce Butler insisted that the Constitution did not give the president authority to start wars “as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished to promote her destruction.” 

For these reasons, the Founders consciously impeded rather than facilitated executive war-making. Indeed, the Founders granted the legislature most military powers: raising an army, funding the military, ratifying treaties, approving rules of war and issuing letters of marquee. And only Congress could take America into war. Article 1, Sec. 8 (11), stated: "Congress shall have the power . . . to declare war." Said James Madison: the "fundamental doctrine of the Constitution that the power to declare war is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature."