Congress Clashes With Another President Over War Powers

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(l to r): Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images, Rodrigo Abd / AP

The right and the left are taking President Obama to task over his involvement in Libya. House Speaker John Boehner sent the President a letter on Tuesday informing him that as of this weekend, he will be in violation of the War Powers Resolution, and demanding a clarification on the mission. On Wednesday, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, is expected to lead 10 members in filing suit against the Administration for illegally waging war in Libya.

The War Powers Resolution was passed in 1973 at the height of the Vietnam War. Congress overrode a presidential veto to enact it. It states that Presidents must ask Congress before waging war abroad except in the case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” Under those hazy circumstances, a President must notify Congress of military action within 48 hours and the action must not last for longer than 90 days – a deadline that will be reached for Libya this weekend. Still, Presidents and Congresses have routinely ignored the resolution during military campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Kosovo and Somalia. In the past, Presidents have skirted the resolution by arguing that congressional funding of the conflicts implies consent.

Boehner himself has questioned the constitutionality of the resolution. “The President of the United States is, and should remain, the chief architect of America’s foreign policy and the commander-in-chief of our armed forces,” Boehner said in a 1999 press release, according to Politico’s Jonathan Allen, when Congress was debating U.S. involvement in the Balkans. “Invoking the constitutionally-suspect War Powers Act may halt our nation s snowballing involvement in the Kosovo quagmire. But it’s also likely to tie the hands of future Presidents.”

This time around, Boehner must contend with a conference that has a decidedly Libertarian bent about waging war. When Kucinich, a well-known pacifist, last month introduced a resolution demanding withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mission in the North African country within 15 days, 87 Republicans voted for it. The resolution might well have passed if Boehner hadn’t stepped in and offered a milder alternative that simply declared “the President has failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale based upon United States national security interests for current United States military activities regarding Libya.”

In fact, in the latest letter, Boehner seems fine with circumventing the War Powers Resolution; he just wants the Administration to do its due diligence. Either “you have concluded the War Powers Resolution does not apply to the mission in Libya, or you have determined the War Powers Resolution is contrary to the Constitution,” Boehner wrote in Tuesday’s letter. “The House, and the American people whom we represent, deserve to know the determination you have made.”

The Administration responded to Boehner’s latest request by pointing out that they have long said they will produce answers on Libya in due time. “We are in the final stages of preparing extensive information for the House and Senate that will address a whole host of issues about our ongoing efforts in Libya, including those raised in the House resolution as well as our legal analysis with regard to the War Powers Resolution,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “Since March 1st, Administration witnesses have testified at over 10 hearings that included a substantial discussion of Libya and participated in over 30 Member or staff briefings, and we will continue to consult with our Congressional colleagues.”

Part of the problem is that the Administration’s oversight of congressional egos on the matter. The President has done little outreach on the issue to members of either party. As NBC News said Wednesday morning, the White House’s problem on Libya can be summed up by the famous line from “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we’ve got here is [a] failure to communicate.”