The U.S. Congress is sending President Donald Trump a pointed reminder this week that, as commander in chief, he is legally bound to work with lawmakers when considering sending troops into harm’s way. The message is contained several times in the $1 trillion federal budget that is making its way to the president’s desk to fund the government through September.
The 1,660 page document includes a $15 billion defense spending increase, but places $2.5 billion on hold until Trump produces a detailed plan for defeating Islamic State militants and explains how he will measure success. It also requires the president to submit within 90 days a strategy for confronting the Assad regime in Syria.
“The message to Trump is that he does have to follow the (1973) War Powers Resolution,” says Dan Mahaffee, senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Mahaffee argues, however, that particularly in this Republican-dominated Congress, lawmakers generally support the president’s authority.
“There doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite in Congress to step up to the plate and reassert authority in matters of military engagement,” Mahaffee says.
Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said, “It’s an assertion of Congress’s power to appropriate and to set the tone.” Speaking to the news website Politico, Capito appeared to shy away from any challenge to the president. “I don’t see it as a finger in the eye so much as just a reassertion of our ability to put our own imprint on what’s going on.”
Trump’s high-profile use of airstrikes in Syria and Afghanistan, along with the heightened tensions along the Korean peninsula, and the offensive against ISIS, have reignited the longstanding tussle between the legislative and executive branches over presidential war-making powers and congressional authority to limit a president’s prerogatives through the power of the purse.
“The U.S. Constitution empowers the president to wage wars as commander in chief, while Congress has the power to declare wars, in fact to authorize hostilities at any level, and fund them,” writes Robert McMahon on the website of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution added fuel to the debate over the Constitutionally ordered executive-legislative balance. The act was approved at a time of growing Congressional concern over President Richard Nixon’s unilateral use of military force in Vietnam, and was passed into law over Nixon’s veto.
The War Powers Resolution requires a president terminate combat in a foreign territory within 60 to 90 days unless there is congressional authorization to continue, according to the Mc Mahon. He explained the measure was intended to provide more coordination between the executive and legislative branches on the use of force
“This whole historical arc has put Congress in a bind,” says Mahaffee. “You’d probably have 535 opinions up there (on Capitol Hill) on their role in any conflict. No one wants to be seen as micromanaging national security or a military effort given the commander in chief’s prerogatives in the modern age.”
Mahaffee sees perhaps a bit of Congressional mischief in the “polite reminders” contained in the appropriations bill. “It might have been slipped in because, certainly within the Democratic caucus there was a constant drumbeat on the campaign trail about candidate Trump’s great strategy for defeating ISIS,” he said. “So I would imagine there was a bit of Congressional staffer “tongue in cheek” when this item was put in.”