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On This Date: Congress Checked the President's Power to Send Troops to War

by Countable | 11.7.16

Perhaps the most significant responsibility that the president and Congress possess is the power to commit the U.S. military to combat overseas. While the Constitution is clear that Congress alone has the ability to declare war, modern warfare sometimes requires that the president have the flexibility to deploy American forces without that backing.

Enter the War Powers Resolution, which sought to give the president that flexibility for a 90-day period while giving Congress the ability to extend or conclude the deployment at the end of that period. It became law on November 7, 1973, after Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto, in response to his administration’s actions in Vietnam.

Why did it come up?

Following America’s involvement in two significant conflicts without a formal declaration of war from Congress in either instance, lawmakers felt the need to reassert the legislative branch’s authority.

The Korean War was authorized by a United Nations Security Council Resolution and Congress provided funding but didn’t formally grant its approval because President Truman didn’t seek it. The U.S. entered the Vietnam War after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, which authorized the use of military force in Vietnam and was repealed in 1971.

Following revelations that President Nixon had authorized a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia (which borders Vietnam) after he took office in 1969, Congress began hearings into the matter and drafted legislation to rein in the president’s authority in 1973.

What did it do?

The War Powers Resolution required the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing U.S. forces to military action and established a timeframe for the military to remain in action before withdrawing.

The bill allowed the military to be committed to combat for up to 60 days, followed by a 30-day withdrawal period unless Congress allowed the engagement to continue by passing an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) or formally declaring war. It also put in place requirements for the president to update Congress at least once every six months about the status, scope, and duration of the conflict.

Former Rep. Clement Zablocki (D-WI) introduced the initial version of the bill in May, 1973, which was revised by each chamber in July of that year before it went to conference committee (where the House and Senate work out a compromise on similar bills). After the committee came to an agreement in October, it passed the Senate on a 75-20 vote and the House by a 238-122 margin. That sent the bill to President Nixon’s desk, where he vetoed the legislation because he viewed it as "both unconstitutional and dangerous to the best interests of our Nation."

But Congress wasn’t deterred and had the votes to override the veto with a 284-135 vote in the House and 75-18 vote in the Senate on November 7, 1973, thus making the War Powers Resolution the law of the land.

What has its impact been?

Congress has taken advantage of the War Powers Resolution several times to curb U.S. military deployments overseas since it became law. In 1993, Congress called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who also faced an unsuccessful legal challenge over the U.S. intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

During the 2011 campaign against the Gaddafi regime in Libya, President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress that the War Powers Resolution didn’t apply in that case, arguing that U.S. involvement there didn’t fit the definition of "hostility" and that the U.S. had transferred leadership of the campaign to NATO. The House of Representatives passed a simple resolution (which wouldn’t be considered by the Senate) that rebuked the president for failing to abide by the War Powers Resolution by a 268-145 margin in June 2011.

The debate over the War Powers Resolution’s constitutionality has led to some discussion in Congress about repealing the law and replacing it with something else. In 2014, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), now the Democratic vice presidential nominee, drafted a bill known as the War Powers Consultation Act that would have allowed the president to take military action over just a seven-day period before requiring congressional approval. But that legislation never received a vote.

— Eric Revell


Written by Countable

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