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Whither Congress?

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As President Bush rushes the nation headlong into another foreign war, an important question should be finally and unambiguously answered: What exactly were those old gentlemen talking about in 1787 when they wrote that Congress, not the president, held the power to declare war?

Are we to believe that they actually meant what they said? Was the authority to send our armed forces into war against another sovereign nation to lie, not in the hands of a single man, but instead amongst the many representatives and senators in Congress? You bet.

America’s Founding Fathers were no fools. True, they made many mistakes when drafting the Constitution, but whatever their individual or collective failings, these were men who, for the most part, desired to create a system of government unlike any other. They were men who had experienced firsthand the injustices that accompany a powerful monarch, and sought to hamstring the newly created executive branch by sharply limiting its power.

Perhaps the most important limitation on the president was the requirement that he secure a congressional declaration of war, not some type of resolution, before leading the nation to war. America’s Founders were deeply interested in “clogging rather than facilitating” the president’s ability to wage war. Thomas Jefferson himself spoke of a “check” on the “dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose” out of the president’s hands. James Wilson, a member of the Constitutional Convention, said that requiring Congress to approve an act of war meant that it would “not be in the power of a single man … to involve us in such distress.”

The result of these deliberations was Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, which states clearly, “The Congress shall have Power … To declare War.”

But the last 50 years reflect Congress’s terrible track record in holding presidents to their oaths and upholding the constitutional order. The Korean “police action”; the use of American “advisors” and later combat troops in Vietnam; the invasions of Grenada, Panama, and Somalia, (and the threatened invasion of Haiti); the deploying of forces to Saudi Arabia; intervention in Bosnia, air campaigns against Serbia and Yugoslavia — and now, the likely military assault on Iraq, a country which, like the others, has never having attacked the United States.

Each of these military campaigns was conducted right under the nose of the U.S. Congress, with nary a peep of protest against an unconstitutional assumption of power by a succession of presidents.

It is high time for Congress to reassert its rightful constitutional role by declaring war against Iraq or not. “Resolutions” are cop-outs, and more important, the Constitution does not authorize them. It is well past time to rein in the ambitions of any president who feels that Congress is, at most, a body to be “consulted,” like the “allies” or his cabinet, when he feels like flexing a little military muscle.

The Constitution’s limitations on the president’s war-making abilities should not be casually brushed aside. The Founders knew well the nature of government. War meant more than national glory and foreign conquest — it meant the raising of mighty armies, taxes and public debt, control of domestic industries, interference with free trade, and the curtailment of civil liberties at home. This was no small price to pay, and should only be considered after a rigorous and thorough debate — followed by a vote of the people’s representatives.

Fortunately for us, our Founders foresaw presidents smitten by an overblown sense of their own self-importance and sought to curtail the ego of any one man through constitutional law. There is no time like the present for a resurgence of respect for the letter of the Constitution and a rebirth of a national desire to hold our leaders to its constraints.

Unfortunately, in the vacuum left by Congress’s irresponsible silence, there is hardly anyone speaking for either the people or the Constitution. (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas is a notable exception.) Now a man who would be king is single-handedly dictating the fate of this country. At a time when war is looming, Congress must overcome the mistakes of the past and affirm its legitimate control over the declaration of war once and for all.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.