That statement is consistent with the language of the War Powers Resolution, which says the president may commit American troops to military hostilities only under a declaration of war or use of force authorization or in “a national emergency created by [an] attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” Yet every president since Richard Nixon (whose veto of the act was overridden) has declared the War Powers Resolution unconstitutional because it interferes with the president’s prerogatives as commander in chief. Moreover, presidents cite as precedent dozens of unilateral military actions taken by their predecessors.
Most presidents have complied with the reporting requirements of the act. What they object to is the act’s requirement to withdraw troops within 60 days unless Congress specifically authorizes their continued deployment. That withdrawal date for Libya is May 20. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) says he is preparing the requisite resolution should it be needed.
Congress’ previous attempts at flexing its muscles in such situations, without a presidential request for authorization, have usually been ineffectual or incomprehensible. The best example of this occurred on April 28, 1999, in response to President Bill Clinton’s decision to commit U.S. planes to NATO-led airstrikes on Kosovo to prevent the massacre of ethnic Albanians. The House first passed a bill prohibiting the use of U.S. ground troops. It then defeated three resolutions calling for withdrawal, declaring war and supporting the airstrikes. Members gave themselves plenty of air cover with that spate of votes.
The current Libyan operation may not force Members’ hands if the president makes good on his promise of a limited engagement. In the meantime, though, it is causing a great deal of angst among those who have no desire for a third war.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.