Congress has too eagerly abdicated many of its constitutional powers in recent years, preferring to let presidential executive orders and Supreme Court decisions drive solutions to controversial policy decisions on matters such as immigration reform, trade and military conflicts.
So when members of Congress vote to corral the president’s power to launch offensive military strikes in places such as Iran, as they did Thursday, it feels like a welcome oasis in the dry, parched earth of legislative accountability.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, and while details about the executive branch’s ability to respond to emergencies or to direct necessary military strikes has raged virtually since the start of the republic, the people’s representatives have a duty to safeguard against the abuse of power.
Congress also holds the purse strings needed to fund military actions, which is a powerful tool, should its members gather the backbone to use it.
We find it notable that Utah Sen. Mike Lee was one of eight Republicans who defied President Donald Trump on Thursday by voting in favor of a war powers measure that restrains the president from launching further attacks against Iran without congressional approval.
Politics leads to strange twists and turns. Not many days ago, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney stirred controversy by voting with Democrats to find the president guilty of an abuse of power in the impeachment trial. Lee voted to acquit. Now, on this important matter, Lee opposed Trump while Romney supported him.
In this case, Lee’s defiance, like Romney’s vote last week, likely won’t amount to much in any practical sense. The House is sure to pass a similar measure, but President Trump is equally certain to veto it. Congress lacks the two-thirds majority needed to overturn such a veto.
But the vote sends an important message. That message is not, as the president and his supporters argued, that the United States is weak and its leaders are willing to let small countries push them around. It is that strength comes through the rule of law, and that the American people should have a say, through their elected representatives, in the launching of any offensive military strike.
As both supporters and opponents of this measure agree, presidents should have the power to use the military to defend the nation, either from a real attack or one intelligence officials demonstrate is imminent. But presidents do not have the power to launch offensive measures or engage in prolonged military campaigns without congressional approval.
In the most recent case, President Trump decided to launch a deadly strike against Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. That successful effort nearly led to a war with Iran.
Not only did the president not consult Congress before launching that strike, Lee criticized a subsequent briefing on the attack as vague and insulting.
Trump is hardly the first president to assert war-making powers. George Washington ran afoul of Congress by ordering military action against Native American tribes. The long-running dispute over these powers tends to focus on the definition of what constitutes a legitimate threat to national interests. But without that debate, and without Congress setting boundaries, the president would be no different than the king of England, whose exercise of sovereign powers led to the American Revolution in the first place.
We note that Lee also has expressed concerns over the war in Afghanistan, saying the time has come for Congress to end it. This, too, is worthy of debate by representatives of the people, thousands of whom have relatives among the casualties.