President Barack Obama’s track record of swerving into Congress’ constitutional lane has been consistent and more than troublesome; yet in February of this year, he surprised me. As required by law, the president sent Congress a request seeking an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIS. Regrettably, his request has been met with near silence on Capitol Hill. Obama has done his part. It is now up to Congress to debate his request on the House and Senate floors and have an up-or-down vote in each chamber.
Why is this important? First, the Constitution requires it: Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 states only Congress has the authority to declare war. The military strategy outlined by Obama to defeat ISIS, if fully executed, rises to the definition of war.
Second, statutory law removes any lingering doubt of the president’s duty to seek authorization. The War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973 over the veto of President Richard M. Nixon, says, “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities” requires “ . . . specific statutory authorization” from Congress.
Further, the War Powers Resolution states Congress must authorize military action within 60 days of initial hostilities; otherwise U.S. forces must be removed. In this case, we have been engaged in military action against ISIS since Aug. 8 and are now more than 200 days past compliance with the law.
Each day, Christians and other religious minorities are being savagely murdered by ISIS. Fellow Americans are among the slaughtered. Whether one believes U.S. intervention is needed or wise, Congress’ duty remains.
My views on this matter are deeply held, and go back to my earliest days serving in Congress. In 2011, I offered an amendment to defund Obama’s attack on Libya because he failed to seek and receive authorization. In 2012, when the president considered using force in Syria, I led a bipartisan effort supported by more than 140 Republicans and Democrats demanding the president adhere to the Constitution by seeking and receiving congressional authorization before engaging U.S. military force. Several days later, to his credit, he agreed. In a speech in the Rose Garden, the president said, “I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. . . . I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”
Although Congress did not pass an AUMF for Syria, it did pass authority in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition fighters. In this instance, Congress met its duty to provide clear guidance to the president on the use of military force. This is the way the law is intended to work.
Congress has no higher responsibility than to provide definitive guidance to the commander in chief as to the conditions under which American service members’ lives are put at risk. This includes a clear explanation of the troops’ mission, the fundamental purpose for engaging U.S. forces and a definition of success. Failure to respond to the president’s request for an AUMF against ISIS is not an acceptable option. Continued congressional inaction would cede all authority to the executive branch and would contribute, irrefutably, to the further erosion of the balance of powers. Tackling tough issues is what we were elected to do and what the law requires us to do.
Let’s bring an AUMF to the floor. Let’s engage in a robust, fact-driven debate, whatever the result. In doing so, we’ll meet our lawful obligation. More importantly, we will fulfill the duty owed to our troops, which is to follow the document they defend with such honor and courage.
Rep. Scott Rigell is a Republican from Virginia.