Bruce Kauffmann: The Constitution and war powers

Bruce Kauffmann: The Constitution and war powers

One of the longest-standing and regularly recurring of our national political debates — a debate that, if anything, is even more intense today — is what powers the president and the Congress have with regard to America's involvement in wars with other nations (or, these days, with other entities such as nonaligned terrorist organizations).

Naturally, that debate began with our Founding Fathers, who, while creating the Constitution in 1787, were well aware that war powers had to be addressed in that document. The question was, which governmental branch would receive them?

The case for giving them to the executive branch was simple. In times of war, especially if America was suddenly attacked by a foreign power, it made no sense to put a deliberative body such as Congress in charge of America's defense because — well — it was a deliberative body. With the enemy at the gates, a rapid, forceful response was critical. To have the hundreds of members of Congress deliberating, debating and finally, hopefully, coming to some consensus on how to respond was a recipe for disaster. Only our one-man executive, in consultation with his military advisers, could quickly devise a military response and see it carried out.

But the case for giving the war powers to the legislative branch was also compelling. War was a serious business, affecting the entire nation. The Founders had studied Europe's wars carefully and noted how disastrous it was when one man, usually a king, decided to plunge his nation into war for his own gain or glory (usually achieving neither).

And what was the closest thing to a king in America? The head of the executive branch — the "commander in chief" — so allowing him to unilaterally plunge the nation into war was unthinkable, especially since, in a democratic republic such as America, it was critical that wars have popular support. After all, it was "the people" who would fight those wars and who would pay the taxes to fund them. Thus, through their elected representatives in Congress, they, not a single chief executive, should have the final say in whether or not to go to war.

In other words, there were pros as well as cons for giving the war powers to the executive and legislative branches.

And how did the Founders solve this conundrum? By splitting the difference — giving the power to declare war to Congress and the power to make war to the president. It was a logical and crystal clear division of responsibility that played to each one's strengths. And the reason why our national debate over involvement in wars today is so contentious is because we (most often our presidents) keep forgetting that distinction. We keep blurring that very clear line.

Bruce Kauffmann's email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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billbtri5 wrote on April 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm

a blurred line is one way of putting it, but a broader question is "what do the people do when the government doesn't/wont obey it's own laws?.." not only in waging war all over the globe but in basic housekeeping duties, like having an annual budget?..