Monday, September 22, 2008

Meanwhile, Back In Congress

The financial crisis the US is facing and the bailout proposed by the current administration have taken up everyone's attention the past several days, and rightfully so. While I don't think the situation is quite as dire as Messrs. Bush, Bernanke and Paulson would have us believe, it is serious and Congress should move quickly (rather than hastily) towards a reasonable response to the crisis.

Congress has other issues facing it, however, and many of them are are not being reported on. One of those issues is a retooling of the 1973 War Powers Act now being considered. That law was passed in response to the Viet Nam war, which was waged without Congressional approval. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by Congress did not authorize the military action taken by the executive branch, but presidents involved used the ambiguities of that resolution to prosecute the war. By 1973, the American public had had enough of that war, and the 1973 Act was a direct response. It made clear that approval for war-making had to come from the Congress, which is what the US Constitution mandated.

Two members of the Congress that passed that 1973 War Powers Act (Paul Findley, R-Ill., and Don Fraser, D-Minn.) have an op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times about the updating of the 1973 act and they are outraged at one proposal which has issued.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is conducting hearings on proposals to amend the War Powers Act of 1973. One proposal, House Joint Resolution 53, would wisely tighten restrictions on executive war-making by the president. Another, proposed by a 12-member commission led by two former secretaries of State -- Republican James Baker and Democrat Warren Christopher -- but not yet introduced as a bill, would dangerously expand the authority of the president to order acts of war without authorization by Congress. Baker and Christopher are scheduled to testify before Congress on Wednesday about their proposal. ...

...the Baker-Christopher panel urges scrapping the War Powers Act of 1973 in favor of a so-called War Powers Consultation Act of 2009, which would increase the war powers of the president far beyond the limits allowed by our Constitution. This commission is asking Congress to approve legislation that would enable the president to start a war -- or in any way use military force -- without even a report to Congress, much less consultation. The proposed legislation has loopholes big enough to allow major military operations by the president alone.

Among these loopholes we find that "limited acts of reprisal against terrorists or states that sponsor terrorism" are exempt from reference to Congress. But who identifies "terrorists"? Who defines "terrorism"? Who determines which are "states that sponsor terrorism"? Who defines "limited"? The president alone. Congress is consigned to the role of an uninformed, unconsulted bystander.

Under this exception, the president could, without even a nod to Congress, ignore historic rights of national sovereignty and commit acts of war against any country that he determines is a haven of suspected terrorists. He could, for example, declare Iran a state that sponsors terrorism and carpet-bomb its nuclear facilities. The language is sufficiently ambiguous to enable a willful president to start a major war without constitutional authority, exactly as occurred in Vietnam.

Another expansion of presidential war powers proposed by Baker and Christopher would allow "acts to prevent criminal activity abroad." But who defines "criminal activity"? Who decides what "acts to prevent" such activity should be used? Again, the president alone decides.

Still another loophole is the exclusion of "covert activities" from approval by Congress. With recent revelations of CIA bombings in Pakistan and the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo fresh in mind, it must be obvious that the country needs more oversight, not less.

It's time for Congress to step up to their constitutional responsibilities and to quit passing them over to the executive branch. If the past eight years has taught us anything it is that giving the president unlimited power has been disastrous, from the current Wall Street debacle, to the one in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay, from the unwarranted domestic spying to the scrapping of regulatory oversight of polluters.

Yes, a president has to be able to respond expeditiously to attacks, but he or she must consult with and gain the approval of Congress before taking the country to war. The US Constitution requires it. The 1973 Act has worked for 35 years. It may need updating, but it doesn't need trashing.

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Anonymous ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Sounds like some drunk with power somebodies are trying to get every bit of their Constitution destroying done before they leave out the back door.

4:41 AM  
Anonymous darms said...

It's possible the 1973 War Powers Act has 'worked' for the last 35 years, but if you are aware of anytime in which the Act's mechanisms have actually been invoked, please let us know, okay? (Wikipedia on the Act) This Act has never stopped a war and never ended one, either, as Congress has always caved to the Executive. Every Single goddamned Time.

9:31 AM  

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