Who Makes War?

The War Powers Commission — a privately-funded group of highly distinguished types — issued a report this week calling for the repeal of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which sets out the legal framework for America’s decisions to go to war. Chaired by former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher, the Commission noted that the dispute between Congress and the president over who controls the war power has never been resolved, and that the courts have stayed out of the argument. The Commission called for replacing the War Powers Resolution with a new statute, the War Powers Consultation Act of 2009.
Warren Christopher
I often have a negative reaction to “blue ribbon” commissions that are populated by the same old faces with the same tired ideas, with a sprinkling of token women and minorities. Though I’m not thrilled with the solutions offered by the Commission, I do applaud having some serious attention devoted to this pivotal question. As the Commission report notes, no decision by our government is more important than going to war.
James Baker
The Commission report criticizes the current War Powers Resolution because (i) it is often ignored by presidents, (ii) when its processes are triggered, mere inaction by Congress for a 90-day period requires cessation of conflict, and (iii) certain provisions appear to be unconstitutional. That seems a pretty fair list of problems.
The Commission stressed that it wanted to propose legislation that BOTH Congress and the Executive Branch could live with. Its principal solution is mandatory “consultation” between the president and Congress. The war decision will be better and more legitimate, it contends, if Congress participates in a consultative fashion.
The consultation would be between the president and a new Joint Congressional Consultation Committee (sounds like Washington?). Consultation would be required before beginning a conflict, and then at least every 60 days during a conflict. If Congress wanted to disapprove military action, it would have to do so by affirmative legislation (or resolution).
Aspects of the proposed legislation bother me. The president would remain in the driver’s seat, and arguably would have an even more firm grip on the steering wheel. The Joint Committee is disturbing, too. The president has to consult with congressional committees on intelligence matters, yet the results of the consultation appear to be that they either rubber-stamp truly unwise policies, or they object to them but do so secretly. Not much of a gain to the public, or to decision-making. Indeed, to me the central problem has been spineless Congresses, not the mechanisms of the War Powers Resolution. In the current Iraq War, Congress allowed “support the troops” to become the same as “support the President,” to the detriment of the national interest.
Still, this is a vital question, and the Commission has done the nation a service by teeing it up. The presidential candidates should be grilled for their views on this issue — as should candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives.