Another was in the exception that the nation’s founders carved out from the commander in chief’s authority. In Article 1, Section 8, they reserved for Congress the power to declare war.
At this extraordinary moment in our history, it appears that today’s Congress has neither the courage nor the sense of duty that the founders expected.
The impeachment of President Trump, which should be the most solemn of exercises, has turned into a nakedly partisan fight. Is there any point in having an impeachment provision in the Constitution if the president is allowed the option to withhold witnesses, documents and other evidence that could show whether there is any validity to the allegations of misconduct against him?
Meanwhile, as Trump moves the country closer to war with Iran, lawmakers are not stepping up to their constitutionally mandated role.
After Trump ordered an airstrike that killed a top Iranian military commander, the House passed a resolution on Thursday, largely along party lines, demanding that the president come to Congress for authorization to take any further action. But it was an entirely symbolic vote without the force of law.
That Congress should find itself tested on both of these fronts at once is, in large part, a reflection of the man who sits in the Oval Office. Trump has turned the presidency into a battering ram. He imitates the authoritarian leaders he so admires, scorning the rule of law and elevating loyalty to him over any regard for norms or checks.
But a feckless Congress has brought much of this upon itself. The problem developed long before Trump assumed office and, in all likelihood, will still exist when he is gone.
What the Framers failed to provide for was a political environment in which partisan loyalties would become stronger than institutional ones, says Angus King of Maine, one of two independents in the Senate. “They thought Congress would be so jealous of its prerogatives that it wouldn’t let the president usurp them.”
The Constitution’s careful balance of power among the three branches of government has been replaced with one that tilts more and more heavily toward the executive. Even Congress’s vaunted “power of the purse” means far less than it used to, because the appropriations process is broken and most spending gets jammed into one big bill at the end of the fiscal year.
Still, nowhere is Congress’s abdication more evident than in its refusal to exercise its duty when it comes to deciding whether to put the U.S. military in harm’s way.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has been one of Trump’s staunchest defenders on impeachment, put it best on Thursday as he stunned fellow Republicans by voting with the Democratic majority in favor of a nonbinding war powers resolution. “If the members of our armed services have the courage to go and fight and die in these wars,” he said, “as Congress, we ought to have the courage to vote for them or against them.”
The Framers wanted the country to have a commander in chief with the ability to respond quickly and nimbly to unforeseen attacks and imminent threats. But they made it clear that there should be no prolonged force commitment without Congress’s explicit authorization.
“That power has been ebbing away for decades, and that’s largely been the product of a complacent Congress that has been all too willing to defer to the executive and avoid having to cast difficult votes on combat and warfare,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told me.
Congress has not passed an actual declaration of war since 1942, in the first months after Pearl Harbor. In the decades since, tens of thousands of U.S. military members have been killed in long-running “conflicts” around the world. The military engagements that have been going on in the Middle East for nearly a generation rely loosely on legislative language passed in the wake of 9/11.
Though that authorization is badly in need of an update, such an update is not likely to happen. Lawmakers know that being wrong on a war vote can dog them for the rest of their careers. You can see that in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, in which foreign policy is suddenly a hot topic. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who voted against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has been reminding voters that former vice president Joe Biden voted for it when he was a senator.
History’s judgment is once again in the balance, as the legislative branch grapples with the responsibilities handed to it by a set of wise men more than 230 years ago. By not stepping up, Congress is assuring it will be a harsh one.