President Obama's request for congressional authorization for retaliatory strikes in Syria creates tough choices for members of Congress. Do they want to assert their constitutional role in war powers by taking decisive action, or do they want to play political games? Does a majority want to support action, oppose it, or try to set limits and conditions?
The best model for congressional action is the law they passed in 1983 authorizing participation in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the only time Congress specifically authorized force under the War Powers Act. Public Law 98-119 has several features that should be part of any measure on Syria:
- It declared the action is part of the War Powers Act process, thus reasserting that mostly ignored law as a proper basis for action.
- It limited U.S. military participation to a peacekeeping mission as President Reagan had promised -- that the U.S. forces would not engage in combat.
- It provided expedited, no filibuster rules for considering subsequent amendments to the law.
The best test of the Obama policy would be a simple up-or-down vote on a joint resolution authorizing the attack but limiting its purpose and scope. If that is not enough, if some members want to promote a policy of military aid to the Syrian opposition or a no-fly zone, let them vote on that and abide by the results. If it's too much, let them vote that way and deny the President the support he seeks.
If Congress can't come together and agree on a common policy, they will forfeit their claims to war powers.