One of the hot topics on Capitol Hill is Congress’ role in authorizing and oversight over the many United States combat deployments overseas.
The issue has become more pressing with news that four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger in early October. Few Members of Congress — to say nothing about the American people — were aware that that United States maintains about 800 troops in a country that most could not place on a map.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. Congress has not used that authority since 1939 when it took action against Germany, Japan, and Italy. President Harry Truman did not ask for a declaration of war for the Korean War. President Lyndon Johnson relied on a vague Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to expand U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. That conflict claimed 58,000 American lives.
Since World War II, U.S. military involvement overseas has often ended in disaster or ambiguous outcomes. With increasing volume and reach, these conflicts are showcased in real time on cable news or social media feeds. Given the level of scrutiny, many in Congress have been happy to duck their Constitutional responsibility and let the executive branch take responsibility for the wars’ outcomes.
But now Congress is becoming increasingly disturbed that Presidents of both parties have deployed U.S. forces across the globe without prior approval from Congress. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chair Bob Corker pointed out that President Trump has informed Congress about “19 countries where U.S. military personnel were deployed and equipped for combat: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Kenya, Niger, Cameroon, Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Cuba, and Kosovo.” Congress has yet to weigh in on most of these deployments. Further, the Defense Manpower Data Center has found that U.S. troops are stationed in about 180 countries.
Congressional concerns over executive branch overreach led to a more than three-hour SFRC hearing on October 30 with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Neither cabinet official appeared eager for Congress to take an active role in authorizing wars.
The executive branch, under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, has stretched the 2001 Congressional authorization responding to the 9/11 attacks and the 2002 authorization approving an attack on Iraq to cover many other combat operations.
With U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan now in its 17th year and U.S. troops venturing far beyond the borders of Iraq, it is not surprising that there is now bipartisan pushback from members of the committee. The ranking member on the committee, Maryland’s Ben Cardin (D) tweeted: “Both the 9/11 and Iraq AUMFs should be repealed & a new, more narrow #AUMF enacted w/ checks on the use of combat troops & greater oversight.”
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asserted that the Administration appears to want permanent ability to go to war without the approval of Congress. That general concern had already prompted Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) to offer new AUMF legislation, S.J.Res 43. They contend that the public deserves a new debate and vote on overseas troops deployments.
Committee member Indiana Senator Tod Young (R-ND) has his own version of a new AUMF, S.J.Res. 31. His bill would authorize war against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — but with no end date or means for Congress to block an administration decision to expand war to an associated force. Rand Paul (R-KY), a vocal opponent of American commitments abroad, called upon Congress to reassert its authority on war.
Chairman Corker, seeing a consensus among SFRC members, promised a committee session in the next few weeks to mark up or write a new AUMF.
But the road ahead will not be easy. Even if Senator Corker is successful, pressure from within the Senate and from expert and grassroots communities will be necessary to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring the bill to the Senate floor.
The House will not be trouble-free either. In June 2017, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) surprised many by persuading the House Appropriations Committee to adopt her amendment to repeal the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and provide time to produce a new AUMF. But Speaker Paul Ryan used a parliamentary maneuver to quash her amendment and prevent it from going to the House floor.
In the end, it may take another parliamentary maneuver of attaching a new AUMF to a must-pass bill, such as an Omnibus Appropriations Bill, to get the legislation through the legislative labyrinth.
No matter the method, it is time for Congress to reclaim authority ceded to the President.