Wednesday’s frenetic congressional session demonstrates the rampant
confusion that reigns at the highest levels of government concerning
U.S. foreign policy. By a vote of 249 to 180, Congress passed a measure
requiring President Clinton to obtain congressional approval before
sending ground troops into Serbia, rejecting his appeal that the country
must speak with a single voice on the crisis, “as NATO had done.”
The same day, Congress, in a tie vote, failed to pass a Democratic
resolution authorizing air strikes.
These two votes, by themselves, may lead to the false impression that
the Republican majority was acting consistently and rationally, as it
grows more unified in opposition to the operation. But that’s only if
you don’t know the rest of the story. At the same time, the Republicans
are enthusiastically planning to double Clinton’s request for $6 billion
to finance the war effort.
Democrats are contributing to the confusion as well. Second-ranking
minority member David Bonior objected that the measure requiring
congressional approval for sending in ground troops “ties the hands of
our military commander and could leave the bordering nations, more than
a million refugees and thousands of our own soldiers dangerously
exposed.” Yet Bonior, in the same breath, inexplicably said, “Many of us
believe that we should have a congressional veto before sending in
As if this weren’t convoluted enough, Congress also considered two
proposals by Rep. Tom Campbell designed to force Congress to choose
between formally declaring war against Yugoslavia and withdrawing U.S.
forces from the region. Both votes were rejected.
Clinton is also contributing to the chaos. He had earlier promised to
seek congressional approval before sending in ground troops. Upon
learning the bill passed that would actually require him to keep his
promise, he sent a warning through his congressional surrogates that he
would veto the measure if the Senate also passes it and sends it to him
for his approval.
In threatening to block a bill designed to keep him from acting
beyond the scope of his constitutional authority, Clinton is saying, in
effect, that he should not be bound by the constitutional provision
granting Congress the exclusive power to declare war. He is also saying
that he doesn’t want to be legally bound to honor his word not to deploy
The murkiness concerning the respective constitutional roles of the
president and Congress is not unique to this president or Congress. The
Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to provide for
the common defense, to declare war and to make rules for the government
and regulation of the land and naval forces, but it makes the president
the commander in chief.
The framers didn’t just whimsically include these provisions in the
Constitution. They believed that it was important for the people’s
elected representatives to make a decision of such grave importance as
declaring war. But even though they feared consolidating too much power
of any kind in the chief executive, they reluctantly gave him broad
powers as commander in chief to quarterback a war, once it has been
constitutionally declared by Congress, only because it would be utterly
impractical to try to run a war by committee.
In 1973, following the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers
Act in an effort to prevent a president from usurping Congress’
constitutional authority to declare war. Congress has been reluctant to
invoke the law, however, because of its dubious constitutionality.
A provision in the bill authorizing the president carte blanche power
to make war for a full 60 days before having to obtain congressional
approval is believed to be in contravention of the constitutional
provision granting Congress the sole power to declare war. The bill has
also been criticized because it arguably purports to restrict the
president’s power to use our armed forces without prior congressional
approval to just one circumstance: a direct attack on the United States
or its forces.
If nothing else constructive emerges from our Serbian intervention,
it should cause Congress to seriously reflect on the proper
constitutional roles of our legislative and executive branches of
government. After such reflection, they should enact legislation
repealing the War Powers Act and replacing it with a law that clarifies
those roles and comports with the express language of the Constitution.
Passing such a law certainly won’t relieve the United States of having
to sort out its role in world affairs in the next millennium, but it may
eliminate some of the needless procedural confusion that currently
dominates our foreign policy decisions.
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