Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Will anyone stand up for the Constitution?

The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, posts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States... 
The Congress shall have the power to declare war... 
-- United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8
Last week, ten members of Congress filed suit in federal court seeking an injunction against President Obama's intervention in Libya.

Their action comes about 61 years late. Congress sat on its hands in 1950 when President Truman sent American troops to fight in Korea. The president didn't seek a declaration of war and Congress obliged him by doing nothing.

Then President Eisenhower thought it would be a grand idea to send American "military advisors" to Vietnam to get involved in a messy little domestic dispute that turned into a nasty civil war. No one in Congress raised their voice as more "advisors" were sent to Southeast Asia. The American presence escalated under President Kennedy to a chorus of silence from Congress.

Then came the "incident" in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Johnson decided it was time to send in more troops. Congress passed something called the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by which they formally ceded their constitutional duty to declare war.

Under President Nixon the war became the military equivalent of Uncle Remus' tar baby. Just like Brer Rabbit got himself stuck in that little ol' ball of tar, the American military found itself in a war it couldn't win. Congress finally got around to asking themselves if it might be a good idea to declare war considering the number of troops on the ground in Vietnam.

But alas, Congress couldn't bring itself to actually doing its job. They passed a little something called the War Powers Act that was as clear a breach of the Constitution as anything that came through the nation's Capitol. The imperial presidency was now complete.

Presidents Reagan, Bush (the Elder), Clinton and Bush (the Younger) all sent young Americans into harm's way without so much as a peep from Congress -- unless someone thought they could wrangle some votes in the next election by appearing to have a backbone.

And now, 70 years after the last time Congress declared war on anyone, some members of Congress have decided that enough is enough and are challenging the president's ability to send troops into war without the authorization of Congress.

One might argue, however, that the doctrine of laches would defeat any attempt by Congress to regain a power that they have failed to exercise since 1941. Allow someone to do a certain thing over and over without raising a stink about it and a court is likely to decide that you were just fine with what that certain someone was doing. There's also that little sticking point known as the separation of powers. Does a federal court have the power to issue an injunction preventing the president from doing anything?

And that brings me to another question -- if Congress controls the purse strings of the federal government, why don't they just vote not to fund any military operation in Libya? If Congress were to challenge a president when it comes to sending our young people to war, maybe, just maybe, we might see the US involved in fewer conflicts overseas.

Of course if Congress were to call a vote on blocking funding of the military intervention, then some folks up in Washington would actually have to take a meaningful stand and put their butts on the line. Does anyone in Congress have the guts to stand up to the president and demand that Congress' power to declare war be observed?

While I can think of a couple of folks who might be so inclined, for the most part, our legislators in Washington sold their souls a long time ago for the almighty campaign contribution. You see, if you take a principled stand you're bound to piss someone off and since very few politicians have the courage to stand for their convictions, Congress' power to declare war will continue to be honored more in the breach than in the observance.

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