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Congress Finally Seeks Limit to Presidential War and Emergency Powers (Washington Examiner) November 19, 2021

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Amid bills to forestall a government shutdown or default, plus trillions for infrastructure and social programs, you would be excused if you overlooked an important amendment put before Congress this week. Three senators from different parties introduced an amendment to the National Security Powers Act to trim a president’s power to declare wars and national emergencies.

After lengthy wars and 30 national emergencies hanging over our heads for decades, we should welcome the amendment from Sens. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat; Mike Lee, a Utah Republican; and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

National emergencies may come and go, but, unfortunately, the emergency powers they trigger remain. We currently live under some 30 states of national emergency declared by presidents as far back as Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. This amendment would limit presidential emergencies to 30 days, by which time Congress must approve the declaration for up to one year or it expires.

A declaration of national emergency, along with executive orders, is a tool presidents have used far too often to expand their power. Do we really want presidents from the 1990s, for example, unilaterally setting current policy on everything from nuclear proliferation and narcotics trafficking to rules concerning Belarus, Iran, Sudan, and other nations? All this with essentially no congressional oversight, review, or sunsetting? I think not.

Over time, presidents have also managed to strengthen their constitutional authority as commander in chief to overtake the congressional power to declare war. The most recent stretch of such authority was the continuing expansion of the Authorization of Military Force passed in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001 to cover all kinds of new enemies and expanded conflicts without further congressional review.

The Lee Amendment would also address this presidential overreach, limiting a president’s ability to engage in “hostilities” from 60 to 20 days, sunsetting all existing AUMFs while requiring increased standards for new ones, and sunsetting them after two years. Think how differently the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might have gone had this kind of review been required.

As important as these changes are, it will still require courage in Congress to use them. For example, when Congress failed to step up and debate U.S. military involvement in Syria in 2014, one congressman said several members would rather the president “bomb the place and tell us about it later” rather than force a tough vote in an election year. But the new rules should at least demand that the debate take place.

One of the problems with our democracy is that power in Washington has been traveling one way down Pennsylvania Avenue from Congress to the White House. Although the House of Representatives has the spending power, the president’s Office of Management and Budget largely sets the plan. Congress has the power to declare war but too often has let the president declare “hostilities” or hurtle through the loopholes in a broad Authorization of Military Force. National emergencies come and go, but emergency powers remain in effect.

This bipartisan amendment is not only important in addressing war and national emergency powers but is a vital step toward rebalancing power in Washington. It is high time that we wean our presidents away from unilateral power and restore power to the people through Congress.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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