Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Congress on the sidelines

Former Senator Jim Webb [D-VA] says there has been "a breakdown of our constitutional process." Time and again in recent years, presidents have taken unilateral actions sending armed forces abroad and concluding "binding" agreements with foreign governments -- all without the participation, much less support, of Congress.

"Congress is mostly tolerated and frequently ignored," he writes. But Webb blames lawmakers more than the chief executive for this sorry state of affairs. As the title of his piece indicates, what we have here is "congressional abdication" of its proper constitutional role.

I agree with that conclusion, though not with all of Webb's particular criticisms. I'm not as bothered as Webb is about presidential actions in Libya in 2011; there is was Congress that failed to pass any measure either supporting or opposing or limiting U.S. military operations. Nor do I view the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq in 2008 as a measure requiring 2/3 Senate approval; earlier SOFAs with other nations were routinely accepted as executive agreements.

But on the broader issue of war powers, Congress has repeatedly failed to step up to the plate. No wonder presidents have ignored lawmakers when they tried to enter the contest. By the way, the Congressional Research Service has a new report detailing the many precedents for congressional limits on military operations, just as I did in Congress at War. All it takes is political will.

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