Politics & Policy

Senate Backs Excess War Power for the President, Snubbing the Constitution

U.S. Army 82nd Airborne troops fire artillery in support of Iraqi forces in northern Iraq, August 2017. (Photo: Corporal Rachel Diehm)
National security is always an easy excuse for expanding government and the role of the executive branch. 

Only three Senate Republicans stood for the Constitution last Wednesday. Senator Rand Paul’s amendment to sunset the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force was killed with a 61–36 vote. Senators Paul, Mike Lee, and Dean Heller were the only Republicans to vote against the motion to kill the amendment. Senator Marco Rubio did not vote.

The bills Paul strived to sunset authorized military force against al-Qaeda and Iraq after 9/11. The authorization is being used 16 years later to justify military action in seven different countries.

“My vote is on whether or not we should vote on whether we should be at war. So for those who oppose my vote, they oppose the Constitution,” Paul said. “They oppose obeying the Constitution, which says we are supposed to vote.”

The Constitution grants Congress, not the executive branch, the authority “to declare war,” yet former president Barack Obama used the 2001 AUMF to intervene in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and other countries without a declaration of war. President Donald Trump struck Syria and continues bombing the countries his predecessor attacked.

The AUMF broadly permits a president to use military force against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” But it does not grant him the power to use military action for another reason, such as fighting the Islamic State or intervening in Libya or Syria for reasons unrelated to the 9/11 terror attacks. As Congress keeps renewing the AUMF and fails to hold the executive branch accountable, the president will continue to usurp Congress’s power and perpetuate endless, unconstitutional war.

Constitutionalists should see the problem. Checks and balances, which exist to ensure that one branch does not have too much authority, encourage robust debate over serious issues, such as war. Standing by as the executive usurps this power defies the founders’ mission and grants dictatorial authority to one man, who can make vital decisions without the consent of the legislative branch. It sets precedent for future presidents to interpret legislation broadly in order to claim excess power.

Advocates for this expansion of executive power are following in the footsteps more of progressives — Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and others — than of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. If we aim for limited government, we should constrain executive overreach, not encourage it.

If we aim for limited government, we should constrain executive overreach, not encourage it.

Much of the recent intervention does not even seem to have much national-security benefit. For example, the United States is in the habit of assisting the overthrow of secular dictators, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, even when they pose no immediate threat to American national security.

The United States has also aided multiple rebel groups against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, even though some rebels are affiliated with ISIS. With Islamic radicals rising up in unstable areas, it might good for the Senate to discuss these dangers and have a vote on intervention before simply barging into a country. At least that would create some accountability.

Conservatives should be wary of war also because it is often used to grow government in other ways. After entering into World War I, for example, economist Robert Higgs writes, the federal government nationalized “the railroad, telephone, domestic telegraph, and international telegraphic cable industries.”

It manipulated, Higgs adds, “labor-management relations, securities sales, agricultural production and marketing, the distribution of coal and oil, international commerce, and markets for raw materials and manufactured products” — all while using the Federal Reserve to inflate the dollar. Taxes increased drastically and the national debt skyrocketed up to $25.5 billion in 1919, when it was just $1.2 billion two years before.

Similarly, federal involvement and regulation in the economy rose during World War II. National security is always an easy excuse for big government.

During the Bush years, war helped establish USA PATRIOT Act and the Transportation Security Administration. During the Obama years, war helped establish a more intrusive National Security Agency. Trump is already jumping on this train by advocating increased steel tariffs in the name of national security.

The Senate is expected to vote today on the National Defense Authorization Act with the AUMFs. If Republicans want to be serious conservatives, they should fight the passage of this bill as it stands, and do their best to fight for small, constitutional government.


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