The Constitutional Role of Congress: Lessons in Unpreparedness

By Skelton, Ike | Military Review, July/August 1997 | Go to article overview

The Constitutional Role of Congress: Lessons in Unpreparedness


Skelton, Ike, Military Review


This article is adapted from three speeches given by the Honorable Ike Skelton, US House of Representatives, to the 105th Congress between 28 April 1997 and 12 May 1997. Addressing his concerns about the US military's future and the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which the Department of Defense (DOD) delivered to Congress in May, he discusses the missions our Armed Forces must accomplish within the QDR's new strategy guidance: shape the international security environment in ways favorable to US interests; respond to the full spectrum of crises when in our interest to do so; and prepare now to meet the challenges of an uncertain future. Mr. Skelton challenges Congress to fulfill its constitutional and national security responsibilities under the law and military leaders to safeguard their most precious resource-people, the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces, and the civilian personnel who support them.

CONGRESS IS RESPONSIBLE for ensuring US Armed forces are prepared to preserve and protect the United States security. The key phrase in this statement is Congress is responsible. Under the US Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, it is Congress' duty, not the president's-let alone the secretary of defense or the joint chiefs of staff-to determine the size and composition of our Armed Forces. Article I, Section 8, assigns to Congress the power "To raise and support armies. . .; provide and maintain a navy; [and] make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces."1

Therefore, it falls to Congress to ensure our military strength is adequate to defend our nation and national interests. Indeed, there is no more important duty for Congress than to provide for the common defense. We have a duty to our fellow citizens today and future generations of Americans. We must not squander, through shortsightedness and neglect, the sacrifices that generations before us have made to secure the peace and security with which we are blessed. We must pass on the legacy of peace, prosperity and freedom bequeathed to us. Congress, therefore, is ultimately responsible for approving a strategy to guide US military policy and, above all, to establish a proper balance between national strategy and resources available.

Shaping US Military Strategy

Historically, Congress has often failed in this responsibility. Since the Cold War's end, many commentators have noted how badly the nation has handled the aftermath of major 20th-century conflicts. Following World Wars I and II, Korea and again after Vietnam, we allowed military forces to deteriorate to a degree that cost us dearly in subsequent conflicts.

A speech made in 1923 by then Army Major George C. Marshall decried a similar pattern of failure even earlier in our history. Major Marshall, of course, later became this century's most distinguished American soldier and statesman as Army chief of staff during World War II, secretary of state in the Cold War's early years and secretary of defense during the Korean conflict. "[F]rom the earliest days of this country," Marshall said "[the Regular Army] was materially increased in strength and drastically reduced with somewhat monotonous regularity. "2 Marshall felt it was perhaps understandable that there should be a reduction in the military's size following a war, but the pattern was not quite so simple. Often, following a war, the Active Army's size increased above what it had been before the conflict. Then within a few years-or even within a few months-it decreased below the prewar level. "[It appears," Marshall explains, "that when the war was over every American's thoughts were centered on the tragedies involved in the lessons just learned.

. . . So the Congress, strongly backed by public opinion, determined that we should be adequately prepared for the future, and accordingly enacted a law well devised for this express purpose. However, in a few months, the public mind ran away from the tragedies of the war and the reasons therefore and became obsessed with the magnitude of the public debt and the problem of its reduction. …

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