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Congress' dereliction of duty

ONLY CONGRESS has the power to declare war. It’s explicitly written in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution:

“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”

And if that’s not clear enough, a few sentences later in the enumeration of Congress’s powers comes this explicit declaration that lawmakers shall have the power:

“To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

“To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;

“To provide and maintain a navy.”

It’s not complicated. It’s not unclear. And yet for most of modern history, Congress has simply refused to accept that responsibility or assert that power.

American presidents have committed U.S. troops more than 100 times without a formal declaration of war. The last such formal declaration, in fact, was for World War II.

That abrogation of duty by Congress goes by another name: cowardice. Lawmakers simply won’t assert their authority because they don’t want the responsibility.

Instead, members of Congress complain about imperial presidencies (usually of the opposite party), which is little more than presidents exercising powers in a vacuum left by irresponsible and impotent legislators.

The administration of Barack Obama has waged war — in Libya, in Syria and now in Somalia — based on the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force approved in 2001, stretching that permission far, far beyond any reasonable measure.

Since it was passed, that authorization has been used by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush in at least 37 instances to justify sending military forces to 14 nations.

That comes from the office of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who has pressed the point about Congress’s dereliction of duty since his election to the Senate in 2012. He also has pointed out the absurdity of continuing to use a 2001 authorization in 2016.

“President Obama sent a notice to Congress [in November] that he intends to use the 2001 authorization against Al-Qaida to conduct operations against al-Shabaab in Somalia,” he said in an interview. “Al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization that didn’t start until 2006, five years after 9/11.”

Kaine pointed out that most members of the incoming Congress weren’t around in 2001, and so have never voted to authorize the use of troops.

“We’re about to have a new Congress and a new administration, and that is a perfect time to do an examination” of how America prosecutes the war against nonstate terrorists.

Whether an administration of President Donald Trump has any interest in sharing powers that Congress long ago ceded to the executive branch remains to be seen. Whether a Republican Congress has any interest in challenging a Republican president on a fundamental matter such as the nation’s war powers will be worth watching.

Politics aside, however, the prosecution of war by U.S. troops is the most awesome of Washington’s responsibilities.

The founders, in their wisdom, knew it was a power that a president should not be able to unilaterally deploy. That the commitment of American troops and treasure should come only by a conscious decision of the people’s representatives.

Congress may have no interest in fulfilling that authority. But the people of America, in whose name those troops and treasure are deployed, and whose children do the fighting, should demand nothing less.