-Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland), 21 March 2011
“The escalation of violence between Iran and the United States makes the constitutional responsibility of Congress to decide whether to declare war more important than ever.”
-Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois), 7 January 2020
The above two quotes offer striking insight into the blatant hypocrisy of Congress. In one, Representative Bartlett rails against President Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya without seeking Congressional approval. Senator Durbin’s quote serves as a mirror image, taking the same stance, but in this case against President Trump’s unilateral decision to target General Soleimani of Iran.
What’s striking about these two quotes isn’t their content, but their context. In each situation, a member of Congress in one political party openly criticizes a president of the other party for taking military action without Congressional approval.
This feigned outrage is just that, feigned. In reality, quotes like these two serve as nothing more than political plays contingent upon the party currently in the White House. All of Congress is happy to accept the status quo, that is, the ability to grandstand about military matters while fully abdicating any true oversight responsibilities. This lets Congress have its cake and eat it too. Legislators like Representative Bartlett and Senator Durbin can generate sound bites about “executive overreach” that play well to their respective constituencies while failing to actually do anything to rein in that overreach.
Put simply, Congressional criticism of a president’s unilateral military decisions does not constitute true disapproval. Rather, it’s political opportunism contingent upon which party a member of Congress happens to belong, with blood on both sides of the aisle.
While I wish that this perspective was just a product of my own cynicism, evidence suggests otherwise. Nearly two decades after the September 11th attacks, US presidents still justify any and all combat operations under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which granted permission to hunt the perpetrators of those attacks (and then was expanded to justify the invasion of Iraq). Congressional criticism of executive overreach while this blank check for military action remains in force is laughable. If Congress truly sought to restore its military oversight role, its members would do everything in their power to revoke this blank check - and not solely when the White House is held by the opposing party.
Having outlined the situation, I am cautiously optimistic about recent developments following President Trump’s targeting of General Soleimani. Breaking the narrative of inter-party grandstanding, two members of the Republican Party - Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul - have openly criticised President Trump’s decision to take military action without consulting Congress. As Senator Paul declared: "I see no way in the world you could logically argue that an authorization to have war with Saddam Hussein has anything to [do] with having war with people currently in Iraq.”
Well, Senator Paul, I sincerely hope that you and your colleagues in the Senate and House have the courage to break this cycle of Congressional hypocrisy. Congressional oversight of the military is a Constitutional mandate, and that mandate should not just be supported when it happens to score political points against the current president. Revoke the AUMF and reestablish the military oversight responsibilities Congress has abdicated for so long.
Maurice “Chipp” Naylon is a former Marine Corps infantry officer, combat veteran, and the author of THE NEW MINISTRY OF TRUTH: COMBAT ADVISORS IN AFGHANISTAN AND AMERICA’S GREAT BETRAYAL.