Senators Sanders and Lee Seek to Limit War Powers of the Imperial Presidency

"Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
~Richard Nixon

The quote above is perhaps the clearest statement ever of what Arthur Schlesinger called The Imperial Presidency. However, a young staffer in the Nixon White House named Dick Cheney, who would eventually rise to the vice presidency, was a true believer. After 9/11, Cheney worked tirelessly to expand this concept.

Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump have all benefited from those efforts. They have particularly capitalized on the blank check Congress wrote to the White House in 2002, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).  Using AUMF, the past three presidents of wielded virtually unlimited power to conduct military operations without congressional oversight or approval and without the knowledge of the American people.

The Founders of our nation were exceptionally aware of both the ravages of war and the danger of power placed in too few hands. Evidence of both positions flows throughout their personal writings and right into the Constitution they eventually ratified. Chief among those concerns was their conviction that the power to declare war must rest with Congress, while the power to conduct, of necessity, rests with the president.

Senator Bernie Sanders (VT-I), Senator Mike Lee (UT-R), and Senator Chris Murphy (CT-D) have announced they will seek a binding resolution on presidential war powers in support of the Saudi War in Yemen.  They want to force President Trump to seek congressional approval under The US Constitution and The War Powers Act of 1973 to continue operations in that conflict. Watch the statement from Senators Sanders and Lee below.
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While this legislation is spurred by this particular conflict, Sanders and Lee agreed their aim is broader. They want to re-establish congressional authority, under The Constitution, to declare war. Let's look at the history.

As noted above, our Founders were wise and grew up under a tyrant who declared war whenever and wherever he liked. They realized that War, because of its grave nature to the people, should be declared by the body closest to the people and by more than than one person. This has always been a highly sensible decision. Largely, US presidents abided by it until Harry Truman violated the principle by introducing  US forces into Korea. A decade and a half later Lyndon Johnson violated it by far exceeding the authorization obtained under The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This act gave a president leeway to act for a limited period of time in an emergency without congressional approval, but required the president come back for reauthorization at periodic intervals.

By 1973, Congress felt it necessary to reassert its Constitutional authority by placing further limits and definitions around the kinds of actions a president may take without congressional approval. They passed the War Powers Act.

Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush seized upon this to mean if they acted quickly and said there was an emergency, they could do whatever they wanted. This came to a head in 1990 when President Bush, Sr. decided to send US troops to the Persian Gulf after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. A titanic, and largely partisan, debate broke out in Congress, as to whether Bush could order such an action without a declaration of war. Eventually, congress voted and gave President Bush the power, though he'd clearly stated he didn't need congressional authority and would act regardless.


Ten years later, with Bush's son in the White House and that young Nixon staffer at his side, the issue came to a head again. Congress basically demanded their right to rubber stamp what President Bush, Jr. was determined to do. With massive bi-partisan support, Congress passed the 2002 AUMF - what I have since called the blank check - for President Bush (and future presidents) to conduct the War on Terror as they saw fit. 

Something is out of whack. We have a Constitution, balance of power, and congressional approval on war for a reason. For the past 67 years, we have lived as if we do not. If we are ever to end these persistent wars against one propped up enemy after the next, we need to wrest this power away from the Imperial Presidency and put it back in its rightful congressional hands. When it comes to war, 535 minds directly accountable to 330 million of us are far better than one mind, regardless of who that mind is.

Ray Davis
for 6 Sense Media