IN THE HEAT of the moment, panicky people begin to believe in a requirement for total war, rather than deliberate, careful, tough procedures against terrorism. This seems to be the spirit in which some legislators have introduced a bill to give the president a free hand -- free from congressional restraint. In combating terrorism, a president would no longer be under the obligation now imposed by the War Powers Act to consult with Congress before putting the American military into action, to report in timely fashion afterward or to gain approval for an extended involvement. It is a rash proposal, one offered without a trace of a showing of its wisdom or need.
And that's not all. Sponsors also want to write presidents a grand blank check -- by authorizing in advance both preemptive and punitive strikes in response to terrorist threats and by allowing these strikes to be directed at those who plan or support such acts as well as at those who conduct them. No consultation demanded, no standards laid down, no questions asked, no review sought.
There is a large group of people whom the words "War Powers Act" send into a tizzy of recrimination against a Congress ostensibly bent on humbling American power. The act has come to symbolize to them everything reprehensible about the way America fought the Vietnam war. But the consultation the act institutionalizes, however jittery it makes some observers, has not demonstrably hindered this or previous presidents in fighting terrorism. None of them likes legislation that, in the common presidential view, limits the prerogatives of the commander in chief. All of them have learned to live with it -- though there have been breaches.
In the immediate, Libyan circumstances that provoked the proposed bill, President Reagan did what he felt he had to do and found the War Powers Resolution no restraint. His hand was plenty strong. Sen. Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the foreign relations committee, is speaking of strengthening the requisite consultation -- by informal discussions with the executive branch, not by opening up the law to formal review. The War Powers Act arose from the American debate on Vietnam and might not be passed from a standing start today. But it is the law, and it has not proven a dangerous or even difficult burden on executive power. On the contrary, it provides what a wise president should value: a way to ensure that when a president goes down the path leading from the use of force toward war, Congress is aboard. The constitutional framework in which the United States faces terrorism and other forms of military crisis isn't broken. There is no valid call to fix it.