Earlier this month, after three hours of testimony in the Senate Armed Services Committee, Congress passed legislation that would allow former General James Mattis to serve as secretary of defense. The law requires a commissioned officer to wait seven years after retirement before serving as the Pentagon’s top civilian official, and Congress had to change the law to enable Mattis to be confirmed. The general impressed the committee members, who moved the new provision immediately after his hearing. Only three members opposed it.
Mattis’s clearing by Congress also tells another story, which is that the legislative branch can move fast when the leadership in both parties views an issue with seriousness and urgency. It took only three days for the Armed Services Committees and the full House and Senate to approve a change in the law, acting with a speed that we usually see only when the federal government is running out of money or when the administration approaches Capitol Hill, hat in hand, with an emergency funding request.
The fact that Congress moved Mattis’s nomination so quickly is partly a tribute to what many national-security players in Washington already believed about the former general: His four decades of experience in the Marine Corps, his climbing to the top echelons of the military bureaucracy, and his universal respect among both political parties make his nomination as secretary of defense a no-brainer for many politicians. Yet one cannot escape a much broader observation: that if the House and Senate are willing and able to do their jobs, they can often put aside partisan blame-shifting in pursuit of a common goal.
If confirmed, General Mattis will enter the Pentagon with a full plate waiting for him. Continuing the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will be one of his top priorities, and he will need all the help he can get if he is to effectively prosecute a war that is now in its third year. To help the defense secretary with that task, Congress should apply the same urgency with which it approached the Mattis nomination. What better way to do that than by providing the Pentagon with a fresh congressional authorization for the use of military force?
I’ve written repeatedly about the criticality of the legislative branch’s fulfilling its most solemn responsibility under our system of government: authorizing the commander-in-chief to use the full weight, power, and influence of the U.S. military overseas to defeat an enemy. Indeed, those calls — also made by many others, including Senators Rand Paul (R., Ky.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), and Tim Kaine (D., Va.) — have fallen on many deaf ears among congressional leaders. But we now have a secretary of defense who is on record as being a forceful advocate of the legislative branch’s power during wartime. He is a former war commander who understands that passing a war resolution is one of the best ways that the United States can show unity of purpose to its troops in the field and to the enemy America is seeking to vanquish.
The president is the commander-in-chief, according to the Constitution, but it is the Congress that has the power to determine when the country should go to war.
In a piece for the Hoover Institution, General Mattis intimated that congressional action on matters of war and peace is in itself a military tactic. “A strong ‘Authorization to Use Military Force’ (AUMF), supported by a majority of both parties in both houses of Congress, will send an essential message of American steadfastness to our people and to the global audience,” Mattis wrote. “Its passage will demonstrate our country’s fundamental unity and enable a broader commitment to deal firmly with a real and growing menace.”
Mattis expanded on that view during his confirmation hearing, stating that “congressional oversight and appropriations, authorizations, are a critical part of civilian control of the military.” The general couldn’t be more correct in his view.
The lawmakers on Capitol Hill were sent by the American people to represent their interests. Members of Congress have a right — indeed, a duty — to claim their stake in decisions on when men and women in uniform will be sent into harm’s way to defend the American people and our national-security interests. The president is the commander-in-chief, according to the Constitution, but it is the Congress that has the power to determine when the country should go to war.
For more than a decade, Congress has passed the buck on this responsibility. Meanwhile, America’s uniformed men and women have been put into dangerous situations in Iraq and Syria on the barest of legal rationales — an authorization for the use of force that was passed a week after the September 11 attacks, over 15 years ago, when the Islamic State wasn’t even in existence.
If Congress trusts Mattis to do the right thing on behalf of the U.S. military and agrees with much of what the general says, it should be mindful that it is what the military professional with 41 years’ experience maintains it should be: a legislative branch that follows the war-making direction outlined in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution.