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Capitolworks: Just the Facts...Going to War: Who Really Gets to Decide?

This afternoon the Senate will hold a floor debate on the Udall-Kaine-Merkley-Murphy-Paul-Lee amendment which would require Congressional approval before any military funds could go towards a conflict with Iran. While a seemingly typical procedural event, in actuality, today's debate is instead an atypical event for Congress. In fact, beneath today's debate belies some of the most complex aspects of our government's balance of powers. For this reason, we thought we would use today's events to explore the topic of which branch of our federal government has the ability to declare war and lead our armed forces into combat.

As Commander in Chief, it seems intuitive that the President would be the one to lead our Nation into war. And, if that is your understanding, you’re not wrong. In fact, numerous Presidents have unilaterally led our Nation into conflicts of all kinds. Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution names the President Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and gives the President the power to direct military action accordingly. However, the constitutional authority to declare war resides with Congress. Really? Yes, but.

Congressional power to declare war comes from the control that Congress has over the funds that would be necessary to execute a war. Essentially, Congress holds "the power of the purse," and without the purse, there can be no practical military action. Yet as noted above, many Administrations and for that matter, Congresses, have ignored this power and its due process-- until now.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was quoted this week as saying, "If there was ever a time to rise to our constitutional obligations to debate and approve going to war, it's now." Such a statement would make sense if, (1) the President was seeking approval for war and (2), the debate was regarding whether or not to allow federal funds for that purpose. But that's not what's happening here. The amendment in question "would require congressional approval before any military funds could go toward a conflict with Iran." But didn't we just establish that Congress already has that ability? Yes. Confused? Hold on!

The current Congress finds itself in a complicated and politically delicate place when it comes to declaring war. You see, as noted earlier, as recently as the Obama Administration, Presidents have committed the Nation to military action without the express consent of Congress. Examples of this are the Korean, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars, among others. Were these actions unconstitutional? Many scholars continue to debate that very question. However, for this blog, it's not inaccurate to say that these actions have been enabled by a Congress that at the time, was somewhat deferential to the current President. Unfortunately for Congress, that difference set a precedent that makes it difficult for the current Congress to muster the political will to overcome.

As for today's amendment, what seems clear is that Congress is still a bit unclear as to how to exercise the power that they hold. If President Trump were seeking approval, and therefore the money, to go to war with Iran, today's debate would focus on the simple question of whether or not to authorize those funds. However, the amendment before the Senate today debates whether or not Congress must approve the use of funds by the President before going to war with Iran. A power that they already possess. So what does all of this mean? Many pundits will attempt to answer that question as today's events unfold, but in the end, at the very least, it illustrates the complexities of our government's system of checks and balances.

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