Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Question of War Power Older Than the Republic

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Question of War Power Older Than the Republic

Article excerpt

Under the U.S. Constitution, does the president have the power to use military force in Syria on his own? Or does he need congressional permission?

Recently, 140 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter insisting that military action "without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution." But even while seeking congressional permission to use force in Syria, President Barack Obama objected, "I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization."

The disagreement is older than the Republic. Because of the nature of emerging threats, it is likely to become even more heated in coming years. To understand the opposing positions, we need to step back a bit.

The Constitution makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces. But it gives Congress, not the president, the power "to declare war." That power emerged from a debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

An early draft would have given Congress the power "to make war." Charles Pinckney objected that legislative "proceedings were too slow," and that the "Senate would be the best depositary, being more acquainted with foreign affairs, and most capable of proper resolutions." Pierce Butler strongly disagreed, responding that the power should be vested "in the president, who will have all the requisite qualities, and will not make war but when the nation will support it."

At that point James Madison and Elbridge Gerry moved to strike out the word "make" and replace it with "declare," an apparent compromise "leaving to the executive the power to repel sudden attacks." Roger Sherman approved of this language on the ground that the president should "be able to repel and not to commence war. …

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