All it took was a single vote from the British Parliament, and Prime Minister David Cameron’s dream of joining Obama in a coordinated attack against Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria was crushed.
It’s refreshing to see democracy in action.
But here in the United States, with a minuscule 9% of Americans supporting President Obama’s proposed Syrian military attacks, we have to wonder if democracy is still alive.
In the House of Representatives, 140 members signed an important letter demanding the U.S. Constitution be respected and followed.
The letter was directed to President Obama and organized by Virginia Congressman Scott Rigell:
“We strongly urge you to consult and receive authorization from Congress before ordering the use of U.S. military force in Syria. Your responsibility to do so is prescribed in the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973.”
The letter continues, “While the Founders wisely gave the Office of the President the authority to act in emergencies, they foresaw the need to ensure public debate – and the active engagement of Congress – prior to committing U.S. military assets. Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
The keyword in the letter is authorization. Authorization requires a vote of Congress. A House member I spoke to this week told me he believed that “If we can force a vote on this, President Obama will lose.”
However, the member was also frustrated and directed his ire at the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. The member believed that Boehner was conspiring with Obama to keep Congress from voting.
His evidence was none other than the strongly worded missive Boehner had sent to Obama earlier that day. According to this member, “when you closely read Boehner’s letter, you see he isn’t demanding authorization, he is demanding consultation. Consultation is no more than a phone call.”
The key sentence in the Boehner letter is: “I have conferred with the chairmen of the national security committees who have received initial outreach from senior Administration officials, and while the outreach has been appreciated, it is apparent from the questions above that the outreach has, to date, not reached the level of substantive consultation.”
While the Boehner letter sounds tough, it’s really not. The only truly tough action Boehner could take is demanding congressional authorization. The U.S. Constitution Article 1, Section 8 is very clear about Congress’s role in putting Americans in harm’s way: “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…”
I don’t think this wording could be any clearer. But Congress must stand up for itself and demand that Obama adhere to the U.S. Constitution, or else it may not matter how clear the words are.
When he attacked Libya, the president totally disregarded Congress. He pinned his authority for the entire attack on a letter from legal counsel. But the Rigell letter destroys this argument:
“Mr. President, in the case of military operations in Libya you stated that authorization from Congress was not required because our military was not engaged in ‘hostilities.’ In addition, an April 1, 2011, memorandum to you from your Office of Legal Counsel concluded: ‘…President Obama could rely on his constitutional power to safeguard the national interest by directing the anticipated military operations in Libya – which were limited in their nature, scope, and duration – without prior congressional authorization.’ We view the precedent this opinion sets, where “national interest” is enough to engage in hostilities without congressional authorization, as unconstitutional. If the use of 221 Tomahawk cruise missiles, 704 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and 42 Predator Hellfire missiles expended in Libya does not constitute “hostilities,” what does?”
Another important question at this point – one that remains unanswered – is this: Will Speaker John Boehner, and the clear majority in Congress who are against this Syrian folly, have the guts to stop Obama in his tracks? We can only hope so.
This commentary originally appeared at CapitolHillDaily.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Photo credit: terrellaftermath