Put war to a vote

Gary M. Stern

November 01, 1990|By Gary M. Stern

DEMOCRACY must really have taken hold in the Soviet Union if an astounding news report from Moscow is true: The Soviet government promised that it would not commit troops to the Persian Gulf without prior approval from the legislature.

Now if only this ultimate democratic check on executive power, conceived by the authors of the Constitution, were regarded as something other than blasphemy by our president.

President Bush, like presidents Reagan, Ford and Nixon before him, has refused to abide by the War Powers Resolution, which prohibits the president from continuing a war for more than 60 days without the approval of Congress. Rather, he has asserted that Congress has absolutely no role to play in deciding whether we should go to war. He maintains his position despite the plain language of the Constitution, which says that Congress has the "power to declare war."

The framers' purpose in vesting power in Congress was simple: to separate the power to go to war from the power to carry it out. As James Madison wrote, "Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges of whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded. They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government, analogous to that which separates the sword from the purse, or the power of executing from the power of enacting laws."

A good many scholars and policy makers alike, who believe in original intent here at home and condemn authoritarian aggression abroad, continue to promote a dictatorial power for the U.S. president when it comes to war.

For 45 years of the Cold War, presidents and their advisers claimed an inherent war-making power, devoid of congressional interference, as necessary to combat the unchecked, totalitarian power of the Soviet Union. Now, with the Cold War ended, their claim lies exposed as a convenient excuse for circumventing an essential democratic safeguard.

Bush would do well to recognize the wisdom of the Constitution by obtaining the consent of Congress before committing the nation to war in the Middle East. And Congress should resist its normal impulse to duck the issue and decide head-on whether, and to what extent, the president would be able to use force in that region and in any other part of the world.

Before we commit our forces to go to war in the name of democracy, we should try to follow our own democratic model.

Gary M. Stern is a legislative counsel in the Washington office of G the American Civil Liberties Union.

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