Congress, Don’t Stop at Passing a Strong War Powers Resolution

A Congress that has repeatedly failed to assert its authority over matters of war and peace must finally learn to say “No!” to Donald Trump’s military adventurism. And it must do so boldly and quickly.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that the chamber will vote this week on a war powers resolution “to limit the President’s military actions regarding Iran” is a necessary and credible first step. But it’s not the last one, and the public must understand that.

Even if a war powers resolution passes the Senate—a remote if not entirely unreasonable prospect—it would only, as Pelosi acknowledges, mandate “that if no further Congressional action is taken, the Administration’s military hostilities with regard to Iran cease within 30 days.”

Because the president’s reckless actions with regard to Iran have escalated tensions across the Middle East and around the world, Congress must rapidly, and fully, recognize the truth of Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley’s reminder: “Our founders argued that the cost of war in blood and treasure is far too great to be decided by any one person.”

This is not a vague demand. There are specific steps that the House and Senate can take—and they should all be considered. Americans who do not want war should not be satisfied with a narrow reassertion of congressional authority. They might be heartened to know and should recognize that there is bipartisan support for a number of checking and balancing moves.

What Trump has done in just a few days and the threats he is now making to launch “disproportionate” attacks demand a sense of greater urgency. “President Trump and Secretary Pompeo are either dangerously inept or colossally ignorant, and have done enormous damage to U.S. security,” says Merkley. “In short order they have…

Turned massive demonstrations in Iran against the Iranian government into massive demonstrations against the U.S.;

Turned demonstrations in Iraq against Iranian influence into demonstrations against U.S. influence;

Mobilized the Iraqi parliament to vote to expel the United States forces from Iraq;

Given Iran an excuse to cancel the restraints on their nuclear program that Iran had agreed to and followed for four years before the Trump administration broke the agreement;

Strengthened the role of Iranian militias in Iraq, expanding Iranian influence—the exact opposite of our goal of reducing Iran’s influence in Iraq;

Caused U.S. forces to set aside their operations against ISIS in order to prepare to defend themselves against attacks by Iran;

Placed U.S. forces and assets in the region at greater risk of attack;

And, most dangerously, set in motion an escalation of attacks that could generate a war between the U.S. and Iran.

“Now,” says Merkley, “all sane Americans must strive to stop the escalation into war. We must insist on following our U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress, not the President, the power to decide to go to war.”

That insistence should have come before Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani—without consulting key lawmakers. Despite a thousand warnings and all the evidence in the world that a sense of urgency was warranted, Congress failed to anticipate that Donald Trump would put the United States on track for war with Iran—and the speed with which he would do so.

That failure continued late into 2019. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 initially included amendments by Representative Ro Khanna to prevent funding for war with Iran without congressional approval and by Representative Barbara Lee to repeal the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force that presidents have used as an excuse for endless war-making. But those amendments were stripped from the final NDAA that was approved in December.

Had the Congress kept those provisions in the defense budget, it is possible that Trump would have been just as reckless. But Congress would have established a framework for pushing back, and for holding him to account. Now, that framework must be established, by voting for a strong war powers resolution but also by taking additional steps. Some of the most vital proposals and ideas would:

  1. Signal that Congress does not intend to fund a new war. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Khanna have proposed legislation “to prohibit any funding for offensive military force in or against Iran without prior congressional authorization.” An amendment along these lines was approved by a bipartisan majority in the House but was later stripped from the final NDAA. Sanders and Khanna argue, “After authorizing a disastrous, $738 billion military budget that placed no restrictions on this president from starting an unauthorized war with Iran, Congress now has an opportunity to change course. Our legislation blocks Pentagon funding for any unilateral actions this president takes to wage war against Iran without Congressional authorization.”
  2. Repeal of the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations of the Use of Military Force. Scott Anderson of the Brookings Institution wrote in December (before the Suleimani killing and latest deadly bombing missions) on the prospect that the administration—in addition to asserting a broad interpretation of Article II of the Constitution that imagines it “empowers the president to use military force overseas in pursuit of an important national interest so long as it is of limited nature, scope and duration”—may assert that their “statutory authorizations” for bombings in Iraq “are the two Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs) currently at play in Iraq.” Representative Lee now argues, “It is beyond clear that Congress must act urgently to repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorization of the Use of Military Force.” She’s right, and there is bipartisan support for such a move in both the House and the Senate.
  3. Focus on diplomacy and renewal of US support for the Iran nuclear deal. Last June, when Trump authorized military strikes against Iraq after the shooting down of an unmanned US aircraft (and then abruptly canceled the strikes), Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted, “Pushed by warmonger John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo, President Trump has abandoned a functioning Iran deal, imposed unnecessary sanctions, re-deployed thousands of U.S. troops to the Middle East, threatened the ‘official end of Iran’, and nearly executed an unconstitutional, over-reactive military strike.… America is only in this situation with Iran because President Trump and his war cabinet have no strategy for dealing with the real threats Tehran poses to American interests.” Most of what Markey said then holds true now. Congress must offer an indication of what a diplomatic strategy might look like, and key to that is working with European allies and others to renew and extend the nuclear deal.
  4. Recognize that Congress has the power to hold reckless and irresponsible presidents to account. As Khanna explained Monday morning, “There is no greater offense, in my view, than sending American troops to war without congressional authorization.” The representative is correct in saying, “It should be scary to people what this president is doing: no regard for the decision-making process, no consultation with Congress. This is exactly what the framers intended the impeachment power to be used for.”

Representative Ilhan Omar is precisely right when she argues, “We in Congress must exercise our Constitutional duty—and do everything in our power to stop another disastrous war.”