Editorial: Congress must OK war powers and accept consequences

Last week, Vermont’s congressman Rep. Peter Welch did what Congress should have done long ago: he proposed bipartisan legislation that would authorize the use of American military force against the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL. Joined by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., and U.S. Senators Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Jeff Flake, R-Az., Rep. Welch told his fellow congressmen and women that it was up to Congress to approve war powers if they determined that the nation should be more militarily involved against the Islamic State, not the president.
“Under the U.S. Constitution, it is the responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force,” said Congressman Welch. “Since August 8, 2014, when military action against ISIL began, Congress has been absent.  Since then, our military has delivered 8,573 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq at a cost to the American taxpayer of $5.2 billion. One American service member has been killed.”
While Welch did not criticize his colleagues for ducking their collective responsibility, it’s not hard to imagine why members of Congress would want to avoid a roll-call vote on the matter: just as the invasion of Iraq did not turn out to be a good decision and members who supported that effort have had to defend their support, there is ample reason to believe that a greater military involvement in a war against the Islamic State could backfire with a public backlash against those who voted for it.
By not having to vote on greater military involvement, Republicans in particular can criticize the president for not being stronger and more forceful, while ducking any responsibility for military escalation if things don’t go well.
While Welch hasn’t accused his colleagues of sidestepping a vote, others have.
“Many just don’t want to get on the record here,” said Sen. Flake, who along with Sen. Kaine authored the three-year Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that is the counterpart to the Rigell-Welch bill. “In this case with our most fundamental responsibility here in Congress, that’s just an excuse, and we need to go on record.”
Welch, on the other hand, has preferred to focus on Congress’s Constitutional role, insisting that it is Congress’s job to discuss and debate the merits of military involvement and act on the nation’s behalf rather than leaving that role to the president.
“It is time Congress did its job by debating and deciding on America’s role in defeating ISIL,” Welch said. “The failure of Congress to do its job is an abdication of its Constitutional responsibility and an indefensible transfer of power to the executive.”
The proposed AUMF introduced by Welch would authorize the President “to take specific, strategic military action and to provide support to our allies and regional partners in the battle to defeat ISIL.” Key provisions of the measure include a sunset after three years unless reauthorized; a repeal of the 2002 Iraq AUMF; and a clause that defines this authorization as the sole statutory authority for the war on ISIL, as opposed to the 2001 AUMF. An identical measure was proposed in the U.S. Senate.
If Congressional Republicans are going to criticize the president for not taking more forceful military action against ISIL, perhaps they should first give him the authority to do so — and share in the responsibility for the consequences of an escalated conflict.
What they know is that it’s much easier to cast blame from the sidelines, than to be on the frontlines putting American troops in harm’s way and have to answer for those decisions. But Welch is right, of course, and such involvement will make for a more unified front as the nation responds to the challenges that are sure to follow.
Angelo S. Lynn

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