Former President Ford yesterday raised broad objections to the practicality of the 1973 War Powers Act, which limits presidential action in times of military crisis overseas.
Ford, as House Republican leader, opposed passage of the measure. But as President he was careful to report to Congress, as the act requires, when he dispatched U.S. troops into dangerous situations on six occasions.
In a lecture at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ford said that "the inherent weakness" of the War Powers Act "from a practical stand-point was conclusively demonstrated" by his experiences. He alled on Congress to reconsider the precedent-making legislation, which was passed over President Nixon's veto.
None of the key bipartisan leaders of Congress was in Washington during the Easter holiday in 1975 when Ford sent U.S. forces to aid in the evacuation of Danang in northern South Vietnam, he said. "Two were in Mexico, three were in Greece, one was in the Middle East, one was in Europe and two were in the People's Republic of China. The rest we found in 12 widely scattered staes of the union," he said.
Ford also reported having trouble notifying congressional leaders on June 18, 1976, a Friday, when he began the military evacuation of Americans from wartorn Beirut. Congress had adjourned for the day.
"One member of Congress had an unlisted number, which his press ecretary refused to divulge. After trying and failing to reach another member of Congress, we were told by his assistant that the congressman did not need to be reached." Ford said resourceful White House telephone operators had local police leave a note to call the White House on the door of another congressman's beach cottage.
The War Powers Act requires the President to consult with Congress before introducing U.S. armed forces into hostilities or "situations whre imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances." It also requires him to submit written reports to Congress within 48 hours if U.S. armed forces, equipped for combat, are introduced or substantially enlarged in size in a foreign country. Military actions overseas must be terminated within 60 days unless Congress approves them.
Ford reported to Congress under the act in six cases: the evacuations from Danang, Phnom Penh and Saigon in Indochina in the spring of 1975; the rescue of the merchant ship Mayaguez and its crew from Cambodian waters in May, 1975, and two evacuation operations in Lebanon last June. He said yesterday that he personally did not believe that the act applied to any of those cases and that he did not concede in his reports that the act is constitutionally binding on the President.
"When a crisis breaks, it is impossible to draw the Congress into the decision-making process in an effective way," Ford said, citing these reasons:
Legislators have too many other concerns to be abreast of foreign policy situations.
It is impossible to wait for a consensus among scattered and perhaps disagreeing congressional leaders.
Sensitive information supplied to legislators, particularly via the telephone, might be disclosed.
Waiting for consultation before taking action can cause "a coastly delay." Failure to wait for consultation could risk penalties for the President "as severe as impeachment."
Consultations with congressional leaders might not bind the rank and file, particularly independent young members.
"There is absolutely no way American foreign policy can be conducted or military operations commanded by 535 members of Congress on Capitol Hill, even if they all happen to be on Capitol Hill when they are needed," Ford said.