War Powers Repeal

January 16, 1995

Could it be that the ill-conceived War Powers Resolution passed in 1973 is going to get the burial it has long deserved? The prospects are propitious. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole now admits he was wrong in voting for the resolution during the emotions of the Vietnam War. He has sponsored a measure that would repeal the most noxious features of this congressional attempt to restrict presidential authority and has every right to expect strong support from President Clinton.

Like Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, President Clinton has never accepted the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution. He made that clear during the period when he was preparing to send troops into Haiti to topple a military junta whose leaders were vowing to resist. His national security adviser, Anthony Lake, said last October that this year the administration would "hold serious discussions" with Congress to amend the resolution.

That resolution, passed over President Nixon's veto, ceded to the executive the authority to introduce U.S. armed forces anywhere and under any circumstances into war-like situations but then decreed that these forces would have to be withdrawn in 60 or 90 days unless Congress voted otherwise. The first provision alarmed doves, the latter infuriated hawks. By 1988, four leading senators -- Democrats Robert Byrd, George Mitchell and Sam Nunn plus Republican John Warner -- came to the obvious conclusion that this self-inflicted deadline would work only to the advantage of America's adversaries. But with a Republican in the White House, Democrats as a group were unwilling to act on this logic.

Now, with a Democrat in the White House and Senate Republicans eager to strengthen the presidential powers Mr. Dole hopes to inherit, the time has come for action. Mr. Dole's substitute provides for early consultation between the president and Congress in event of hostilities and for presidential reports at least every six months. These innocuous provisions are not self-enforcing and perhaps would do more good than harm.

It should be understood that the Constitution gives the legislative branch only the power to "declare" war, not "wage" war, which remains in the province of the commander in chief. History has shown that while Congress instinctively chafes at presidential control over foreign policy, institutionally it neither desires nor is capable of shouldering the immense burden of putting U.S. forces at risk. Although presidents have exercised their war powers more than 190 times since the nation began, while seeking declarations of war on only five occasions, Congress has wanted no part of its ultimate weapon: the denial of funds for the armed forces.

Senator Dole's initiative gives President Clinton an opportunity to respond on a bipartisan basis. If the War Powers Resolution of 1973 is replaced, future presidents will be grateful -- and so will future Congresses.

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