By Stephen Mihm
President Barack Obama is asking Congress for its "buy in" for military operations to combat the Islamic State, which has captured large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
This approach, which puts Congress in the role of merely acceding to the president's request, isn't what the Founders imagined when they envisioned the powers of "war and peace" in the new United States.
So how did this erosion of Congress's role occur? Although some have blamed the Sept. 11 attacks, and others with a longer memory have pointed the finger at the wars in Vietnam and Korea, neither characterization is correct. For good or for ill, much of the power to declare and wage war has been in executive hands almost from the beginning.
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In 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia to discuss revising the older "Articles of Confederation" that governed the former colonies. They quickly jettisoned these, dedicating themselves instead to crafting the document that would become the U.S. Constitution.
The delegates were almost unanimous in their belief that war powers would rest in the hands of the legislature, not the executive branch. In fact, early drafts of the Constitution specified that Congress would have the power to "make war." This was ultimately changed to "declare war" to avoid tying the hands of the president in the case of sudden attacks. But most essential functions of war-making, and foreign policy, remained in the hands of Congress.
Problems began with the first president. George Washington knew more about war than anyone in Congress, and he immediately shifted the balance of power. Instead, Washington sought "buy in" to go after the Indian tribes that began attacking white settlers on the western frontier in the late 1780s. Like the Islamic State today, they posed a threat that was at once amorphous, hard to reach and even harder to combat. The Miami and Shawnee tribes of the Ohio River Valley had scalped and murdered settlers, stolen livestock and taken civilians captive.
In 1789, Washington warned lawmakers that it might be necessary to "punish aggressors." Congress, preoccupied by other matters, declared that it wouldn't "hesitate to concur in such further measures." No formal vote authorizing war was held.
Washington called up the militia and sent it to the frontier. This and a subsequent campaign against the Indians ended in disaster, prompting recriminations in Congress. But at no point was there a formal declaration of war by Congress. Nor did Washington ask for one. Instead, he plunged further into the morass, asking Congress to establish a national army to deal with the threat.
Some legislators fought back, arguing that the state militias alone could deal with the problem. But Washington stuck to his guns, and ultimately got his way.
And so it was that Congress developed the habit of deferring to the executive branch, which, then as now, could rely on expertise that eluded legislators far removed from the field of battle. Moreover, when Congress finally got information from the executive branch, it was often too late. Although Congress occasionally regained some of its power, most notably when it took the lead in calling for war against the British in 1812, it generally resumed its supine position in any conflict where the enemy, never mind the objectives, weren't crystal clear.
Congress eventually managed to secure passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, which sought to rein in the war powers of the executive branch. It requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing troops on the ground; it also requires a formal authorization from Congress within 60 days. But this legislation has been ignored and undercut by the executive branch since its passage.
Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia.