The U.S assault on Iran's Persian Gulf oil platforms in response to the attacks on U.S.-flagged shipping once again dramatically underlines the need for congressional action to force presidential compliance with the 1973 War Powers Act. This U.S. military initiative represents the most serious engagement of our forces in hostilities in the Gulf thus far. By attempting to end-run Congress on the decision to commit U.S. force there, President Reagan only increases his risk of losing existing congressional and public support for his adventurous policies in the Gulf.
The president's decision to bypass Congress in decision-making on the vital issue of war and peace has produced a clamor of complaint in the House and Senate -- and caused the very uncertainty about U.S. purposes and staying power in the Gulf that he alleges he is seeking to avoid by refusing to invoke the War Powers Act. The president and Congress are in disagreement -- just as the Senate was publicly divided in yesterday's tense parliamentary maneuvering. This is a direct consequence of the White House's doctrinaire rejection of any congressional role in sharing war powers.
President Reagan should now -- even belatedly -- come to Congress to develop a policy on Persian Gulf troop deployments that merits bipartisan support.
There is irony in the recent confluence of debates over application of the War Powers Act to the Persian Gulf deployments and the Robert Bork confirmation. Central to the issues is disagreement over the importance of the constitutional Framers' original intent. Yet many who have found virtue in the notion that "original intent" must be the foundation of modern law have flip-flopped on the war powers question: they reject the clear decision of the Constitution's authors to vest in Congress the power to initiate hostilities.
This is not an academic issue. It is a crucial concern as the recurring confrontation between Congress and the White House over war powers escalates. Congress is seeking a way to force presidential reporting under the 1973 War Powers Act while the administration maintains its risky policy of deploying 15,000 troops in the Gulf war zone without any express congressional support.
The Framers stated clearly that Congress was to have the sole power to declare war (though they amended earlier drafts to provide a unitary military command under the president for prosecuting a war once declared). In 1973, Congress sought to clarify these powers and to limit undeclared wars by enacting the War Powers Act.
But the act has been a failure. It has not prevented presidents from pursuing risky military adventures before enlisting congressional support. It has not facilitated unity between the legislative and executive branches. Instead, it has introduced new uncertainties into U.S. diplomatic and military endeavors. Indeed, in the Gulf -- as in recent military endeavors in Beirut and Tripoli -- the American commitment has been unclear, the American policy vague and ad hoc. Like his Democratic and Republican predecessors, Reagan has failed to strengthen his hand by seizing the opportunity that war powers requirements can offer for enlisting congressional support.
But the deficiencies of the War Powers Act cannot be remedied simply by new ad hoc cooperation on Gulf policy.
There is rapidly growing bipartisan realization on Capitol Hill that the act needs to be rewritten. The problem is that the 1973 law permits the president to commit troops to hostilities first, and then come to Congress for approval later -- if at all. As we have seen, Congress has proven reluctant to press for withdrawal of troops once deployed -- however ill-advised the deployments might be.
The best remedy for this problem would be to restore the 1973 War Powers Act to its original Senate-passed form. This version made clear that in a nonemergency situation (where the United States was not facing imminent attack or where its citizens were not endangered) the commitment of U.S. troops to involvement in hostilities was to be a joint legislative-executive decision. Under this bill, the decision to initiate involvement in a war situation -- the modern-day equivalent of a declared war -- was restored to Congress, as the Framers of the Constitution clearly provided.
This option, recently advanced once again in the Senate by Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stennis (D-Miss.) and others, should be the basis of war powers revision. Its adoption would go a long way toward reaffirming the Framers' original intent and lending greater credibility to our military and diplomatic endeavors throughout the globe.
The writer is Senate Democratic whip and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.