Nearly five hundred times in the past century, American presidents have deployed the nation's military abroad, on missions ranging from embassy evacuations to full-scale wars. The question of whether Congress has effectively limited the president's power to do so has generally met with a resounding "no." In While Dangers Gather, William Howell and Jon Pevehouse reach a very different conclusion.
The authors--one an American politics scholar, the other an international relations scholar--provide the most comprehensive and compelling evidence to date on Congress's influence on presidential war powers. Their findings have profound implications for contemporary debates about war, presidential power, and Congress's constitutional obligations.
While devoting special attention to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this book systematically analyzes the last half-century of U.S. military policy. Among its conclusions: Presidents are systematically less likely to exercise military force when their partisan opponents retain control of Congress. The partisan composition of Congress, however, matters most for proposed deployments that are larger in size and directed at less strategically important locales. Moreover, congressional influence is often achieved not through bold legislative action but through public posturing--engaging the media, raising public concerns, and stirring domestic and international doubt about the United States' resolve to see a fight through to the end.
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Princeton University Press
January 01, 2007
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Excerpt from While Dangers Gather by William G. Howell
Possibilities of Congressional Influence
The federal government exerts no greater power than when it places American men and women in harm's way. In sending troops off to kill and die in the service of some principle, high or low, the state exhibits all of its authority, wholly displacing individual wants and interests with collective \purposes and ends. Rather than acting as some benign force, state leaders in these moments consciously and deliberately reshape the world around them. By constitutional design, therefore, the Founders prudently dispersed control over the military across the various branches of government, assigning presidents the mantle of commander in chief while granting Congress the more substantial responsibilities of raising armies and declaring war.
For much of American history, the system seemed to work. From the founding of the Republic to the mid twentieth century, most major uses of force received formal sanctioning by both Congress and the president. While presidents occasionally pressed outward on the boundaries of their constitutional authority--James Polk orchestrated a series of military provocations along the Texas border that would launch the Mexican-American War, and Lincoln wielded extraordinary extra-constitutional powers during the Civil War--Congress's rightful place in deliberations over war appeared reasonably well established. With Harry Truman, however, this would change. By declaring the Korean War a "police action" that did not require a declaration of war, Truman established a precedent for subsequent presidents to strike out on their own, deploying the military on prolonged tours of duty, humanitarian ventures, and targeted strikes without ever securing Congress's formal consent.
Truman's presidency coincided with the nation's emergence as a genuine superpower. At the close of World War II, the United States stood as the world's strongest military and economic power, with new interests to protect and promote in even the most distant reaches of the globe. Isolationists no longer ruled U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the Founders could hardly have imagined the awesome influence that America would wield in international affairs, and the pressures that this would place on the commander in chief. A dangerous new world, many would argue, required powerful, determined, and rapid responses that only a president could manufacture.
By Richard Nixon's second term, the White House war machinery seemed out of control. Presidents had long initiated military operations without a formal declaration of war, but now they were doing so without the faintest recognition of Congress's rightful authority. Faced with dubious claims about North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the conduct of a secret war in Laos, and the persistence of an illegal bombing campaign in Cambodia, political observers at the time began to cry foul. In a celebrated indictment of what he called an "imperial presidency," Arthur Schlesinger noted that "by the early 1970s the American President had become on issues of war and peace the most absolute monarch (with the possible exception of Mao Tse-tung of China) among the great powers of the world."1 Plainly, something needed to be done.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution was supposed to rein in a presidency run amok and to reassert congressional prerogatives over foreign policy making. It required that presidents "in every possible instance" consult with Congress before introducing military forces into foreign hostilities, secure formal authorization within sixty to ninety days or withdraw troops, and if the military engagement was approved by Congress, submit regular reports to that body. The resolution, its advocates claimed, would correct the decades-long presidential incursions into congressional war powers and put members of Congress back in charge of deliberations involving the use of military force, as the Framers intended them to be. At its signing, cosponsor senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) announced that "never in the history of this country has an effort been made to restrain the war powers in the hands of the president . . . [This bill] will make history in this country such as has never been made before."2 With this resolution, congressional aspirations to reclaim lost ground in an age-old struggle over who has the right to declare war had peaked.
Instead of firmly reasserting congressional prerogatives, however, the resolution brought disappointment. Every president since Nixon, Democrat and Republican, has refused to recognize its constitutionality. In the last three decades, presidents have launched one military initiative after another--in Grenada and Haiti and Lebanon and Panama and Kosovo and Liberia--without ever securing congressional authorization. Only once, for Lebanon in 1983, has the War Powers clock even been started, and then the president was granted an eighteen-month grace period. And when launching smaller-scale military operations, presidents frequently have dodged the resolution's reporting requirements. Rather than correcting for gross imbalances in the nation's system of separated powers, the War Powers Resolution, astonishingly, turned bad to worse.
On this, almost everyone agrees. According to Robert Katzman, "A growing consensus maintains that the War Powers Resolution has not worked as Congress envisioned. Presidents have refused to invoke the law in ways that could limit their freedoms of action; indeed, they have not even conceded its constitutionality. Congress, for its part, has been reluctant to challenge the president."3 According to John Hart Ely, "Thanks to a combination of presidential defiance, congressional irresolution, and judicial abstention, the War Powers Resolution has not worked."4 Observes Peter Irons, "Every president since Nixon has disregarded--and in some cases flatly disobeyed--the provisions of what has become a monument to legislative futility."5 The resolution, says Louis Fisher, "was a sellout, a surrender."6
As Congress's best effort to reclaim control over military affairs, the resolution's failings would seem to reflect all of the inadequacies of the institution that enacted it. According to Stephen Weissman, in matters involving war, Congress is infected by a "culture of deference: a distinct set of norms and beliefs, customs and institutions, that confine it to the margins of power."7 And this culture of deference--if indeed it is a "culture"--sabotages the machinery of government more generally. Ely rails against "the disappearance of the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, as it applies to decisions to go to war."8 Claiming that "legislative abdication is the reigning modus operandi" in foreign affairs, and that Congress's involvement in decisions involving war has been "decimated," Neal Katyal suggests that we abandon our focus on Congress and instead look to independent executive agencies to check presidential war powers.9 According to Joanne Gowa on matters involving war, Congress and the president adhere "to a tacit truce [as] a means to escape rather than a reflection of accountability," the result of which is "a subversion of a checks-and-balance system."10 In their indictment of Congress's failures to oversee the president's prosecution of foreign wars, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann conclude that, "In the past six years . . . congressional oversight of the executive across a range of policies, but especially on foreign and national security policy, has virtually collapsed."11
With the erosion of congressional checks on presidential war powers, these scholars note, comes the erosion of our system of separated powers. There emerges, then, an unconstrained president who launches military forces at will, perhaps attentive to his place in history or to the international balance of powers, but liberated from the congressional interference that so often foils his domestic policy initiatives. As Louis Fisher characterizes the post-Truman presidency, "On matters of war, we have what the framers thought they had put behind them: a monarchy. Checks and balances? Try to find them."12
This book accepts Fisher's challenge. It searches for congressional efforts to constrain presidential war powers during the post-World War II era, and in so doing, it discovers considerable evidence that checks and balances, though diminished, persist nonetheless. There is no denying that Congress has abdicated considerable responsibilities over war making, or that presidents have stepped into the fray and claimed powers and rights that the Framers never intended them to hold. But a closer look reveals more activity and more influence than scholars have been willing to admit. By broadening the scope of inquiry, and by distinguishing what is from what should be, one discovers evidence that Congress--imperfectly, intermittently, but remarkably predictably--continues to monitor the presidential use of force. More than occasionally, its members do things, or threaten to do things, that materially affect presidential decisions about war. And perhaps not surprisingly, those members who do the most to check presidential war powers consistently come from the ranks of the opposition party.
Using a variety of original datasets and drawing from diverse literatures within political science, this book demonstrates that Congress continues to play an important role in shaping the domestic politics that precede military action, and in influencing the willingness of presidents to embark on new ventures abroad. While the power its members wield may not satisfy every interested party, Congress's mark is readily detectible. By staying attuned to partisan divisions between the legislative and executive branches, the efforts of each to anticipate and accommodate the other's future actions, the challenges of coordinating a military venture, and the uncertainty and devastation wrought by war, we find considerable evidence of congressional influence. After exploring the roots and dimensions of presidential dominance in matters of war, the remainder of this chapter characterizes the various means by which members of Congress influence presidential decisions regarding military action; the subsequent chapter, then, identifies the conditions under which Congress most effectively employs them.
The Executive IS Chief
Scholars who argue that presidents dominate the politics of war do so with good reason. In political struggles over military deployments during the past half century, Congress has ceded to the president considerable ground--so much, in fact, that its members no longer meet even basic standards of responsibility set by the Constitution.13 Before we examine the influence Congress continues to wield, we must recognize the historical trends and institutional advantages that have catapulted the president to the forefront of decisions involving the use of force. This section briefly outlines some of the more important reasons presidents predominate in debates over war and in the making of foreign policy more generally.
There is, at present, a burgeoning body of work within American politics that documents the strategic advantages presidents enjoy when they exercise their unilateral powers, or what elsewhere we have called "power without persuasion," which very much embodies the deployment of troops abroad.14 Two features of this unilateral politics literature are worth noting. The first concerns sequence. When presidents act unilaterally, they stand at the front end of the policy-making process and thereby place on Congress and the courts the burden of revising a new political landscape. If adjoining branches of government choose not to retaliate, either by passing a law or ruling against the president, then the president's order stands. Only by taking (or credibly threatening to take) positive action can either adjoining institution limit the president's unilateral powers.
Members of Congress often do confront presidents when their military orders prove misguided or ill-informed. They do so, however, under less than ideal circumstances. For starters, when debating the merits of an ongoing military venture, members of Congress are vulnerable to the accusation that they are undermining troop morale and catering to the enemy. As James Lindsay recognizes, members often avoid putting themselves in "the politically and morally difficult position of allowing funds to be cut off to troops who may be fighting for their lives."15 By way of example, recall Clinton's deployment of troops to Haiti in 1994. Before the action, a majority of senators opposed the plan, but once troops were deployed, Congress did not attempt to force their immediate return. One political commentator surmised, "There's bipartisan criticism of going into Haiti. There's also bipartisan support, at least, in supporting the troops now that they're there."16 Though members can, and do, take on the president during the ongoing course of a military venture, they do so under conditions that hardly foster open and critical debate.17 Instead, members proceed cautiously, ever aware of how their actions and words are likely to be interpreted by a public wary of any criticism directed at troops who have willingly placed their lives on the line.
Some military actions, meanwhile, are sufficiently limited in scope and duration that Congress has little if any opportunity to coordinate an effective response, either before or during the actual intervention. In the spring of 1986, for instance, Reagan "consulted" with congressional party leaders on planned air strikes against Libya while U.S. planes were en route to Northern Africa. Obviously, there was little that these members could do to curb these attacks. As one Democrat attending the meeting noted, "What could we have done? . . . Told [the president] to turn the planes around?"18 The military completed its bombing campaign long before members of Congress could possibly have resolved their differences and enacted authorizing legislation. Though Congress might have passed legislation either supporting or condemning the president's action after the fact, its members could do precious little to redirect the course of this particular targeted military strike. By seizing the initiative and unilaterally deploying the military to perform short and small attacks, presidents often elude the checks that Congress might otherwise place on them.
The second feature of unilateral powers that deserves attention is that when the president acts, he acts alone. Of course, he relies on numerous advisors to formulate the policy, to devise ways of protecting it against congressional or judicial encroachment, and to oversee its implementation. But to issue the actual policy, as either an executive order or memorandum or any other kind of directive, the president need not rally majorities, compromise with adversaries, or wait for some interest group to bring a case to court. The president, instead, can strike out on his own, placing on others the onus of coordinating an effective response. Doing so, the modern president is in a unique position to lead, break through the stasis that pervades the federal government, and impose his will in more and more areas of governance.
In foreign policy making generally, and on issues involving the use of force in particular, this feature of unilateral powers reaps special rewards. If presidents had to build broad-based consensus behind every deployment before any military planning could be executed, most ventures would never get off the ground. Imagine having to explain to members of Congress why events in Liberia this month or Ethiopia the next demand military action, and then having to secure the formal consent of a supermajority before any action could be taken. The federal government could not possibly keep pace with an increasingly interdependent world in which every region holds strategic interests for the United States. Because presidents, as a practical matter, can unilaterally launch ventures into distant locales without ever having to guide a proposal through a circuitous and uncertain legislative process, they can more effectively manage these responsibilities and take action when congressional deliberations often result in gridlock. It is no wonder, then, that in virtually every system of governance, executives (not legislatures or courts) mobilize their nations through wars and foreign crises. Ultimately, it is their ability to act unilaterally that enables them to do so. In sum, the advantages of unilateral action are significant: they allow the president to move first and move alone.
All of the institutional features of Congress that impede consensus building around a military venture ex ante also make it equally if not more difficult, later, to dismantle an operation that is up and running. This is what makes the president's unilateral powers so potent. Multiple veto points, high transaction costs, and collective action problems regularly conspire against the president when he tries to guide his legislative agenda through Congress. Each, though, works to his advantage when he issues a unilateral directive, as each cripples Congress's capacity to muster an effective response. To be sure, congressional checks on presidential war powers do not disappear entirely--this book is based on the premise that under well-specified conditions (see chapter 2) they remain operative. But in an era when presidents unilaterally deploy troops with greater and greater frequency, Congress often trips over the same institutional features that undermine its capacity to govern more generally.
Beyond the strategic advantages that unilateral powers impart, presidents also benefit from the substantial information imbalance that characterizes executive-legislative relations. When a conflict erupts abroad, more often than not the president is the first to know, has access to the most acurate and current information about it, and is best situated to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of different courses of action. A massive network of national security advisors, an entire intelligence community, and diplomats and ambassadors stationed all over the globe report more or less directly to the president. Nothing comparable supports members of Congress. For the most part, they count on the president and those within his administration to share information that might bear on contemporary foreign policy debates. When the president refuses to disclose all relevant information, or he tailors the presentation of facts to suit his own strategic interests, members have a difficult time prying from the administration the information they claim to need.19
Should the president decide that it is in the nation's best interest to send troops into Grenada, Lebanon, Haiti, or Somalia, at least initially Congress often lacks the information required to offer a substantive objection. Instead its members are left to raise questions about the potential costs of a military venture, to worry aloud about the potential loss of human life, or to criticize the president for not having made his case to the American people. As Robert Dahl recognized over a half century ago, "Of all the alternative methods of dealing with a given crisis in foreign affairs, the executive-administrative selects that one which appears soundest to it, and henceforth its pressures are mobilized behind that alternative. What this really means is that the executive, by and large, determines the scope and nature of the debate. Congressmen may support, or they may oppose the executive proposals. But they are rarely in a position to examine the full range of alternatives that may be open to them."20
Strong informational advantages coupled with the unique ability to act unilaterally in the international arena make the president, by Paul Peterson's account, "the most potent political force in the making of foreign policy," while Congress remains "a secondary political player."21 There is no escaping this fact. The primary questions that this book intends to answer are not whether congressional power effectively matches presidential power, or whether Congress has met its constitutional obligations over foreign policy making. On both of these fronts, answers obviously assume the negative. Rather, the interesting questions are uncovered when we examine those interbranch struggles that persist, when we try to determine whether Congress, in any material fashion, constrains the presidential use of force.
Congress, Still Relevant
Endowed with powers of unilateral action and immense informational advantages, why should the president worry about Congress? What can its members really do that has any bearing on his assessments of the potential risks and rewards of military action? A fair amount, we think. Its actions will not convince every president, every time, to change course. But through both legislative enactments and public appeals, Congress can increase the likely costs, financial and otherwise, of a planned military venture. The bills Congress introduces, the resolutions it passes, the hearings it holds, and the public declarations its members make can establish legal constraints on presidential war powers and increase the political costs of battlefield failures. In this section, we summarize past congressional efforts to influence presidential decision making through both legislative processes and public appeals: We then offer some lessons about how these activities shape the larger politics that precede military action.
OPPOSITION THROUGH LEGISLATION/APPROPRIATIONS
Should the president embark on a misguided or unexpectedly costly military venture, members of Congress can actively work against him, by either restricting the scope or duration of a conflict or by establishing firm reporting requirements. Members also oversee the appropriations process, which, according to James Lindsay, "gives Congress tremendous say over the budgets, structures, and duties of the armed forces."22 Though no specific remedy negates the vast arsenal of powers available to the president during times of war, each goes some distance toward checking presidential war powers--and collectively, they may materially affect the course of a military campaign, and the probability that the American public and international allies continue to support the president along the way. Surveying the past seventy years of American history, one discovers numerous instances when Congress asserted its prerogatives over matters involving war, and presidents promptly, though to varying degrees, adjusted their behavior.
Few stronger examples of congressional influence on foreign policy exist than the period preceding American entry into World War II. Advancing the long-standing tradition of American isolationism, as well as a preoccupation with depression-related economic policies, Congress passed Neutrality Acts in 1935 and 1937 that restricted the president's ability to direct military or financial aid to Allied powers engaged in war. Although he staunchly opposed legislative efforts to keep America out of European hostilities, Roosevelt also recognized the extent to which congressional views resonated in the public, and he feared that Congress might derail his domestic agenda if he pushed for American involvement.23 Hence, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Roosevelt moved haltingly--from Winston Churchill's perspective, perilously so--to provide vital aid needed to stall the Nazi expansion.
Nearly two years would pass before Roosevelt formally attempted to repeal aspects of the 1937 Neutrality Act. These efforts had an inauspicious start when it was revealed that a French officer had been allowed to fly in a newly designed American fighter plane, which subsequently crashed. Undeterred, Roosevelt called secret congressional hearings on French attempts to purchase American-built advanced fighters. By mid March 1939, in response to Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia, Roosevelt publicly appealed for the lifting of the Neutrality Act's mandatory arms embargo to belligerents. Hitler's subsequent invasion of Poland then assured some congressional concession. Still, though, isolationist sentiments remained strong. Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, and a number of senators publicly denounced Roosevelt's request and thereby unleashed "a torrent of letters and telegrams . . . in Washington" counseling against lifting the arms embargo.24 As a compromise, Congress did agree to repeal the arms embargo later that year, but it also insisted that cash alone be paid for war materials and that foreign vessels be used to collect the shipments.
Recognizing the seemingly implacable spirit of isolationism, Roosevelt began to take the message of defending against the Axis powers directly to the public. As he wrote in a December 1939 letter, "What worries me is that public opinion over here is patting itself on the back every morning and thanking God for the Atlantic Ocean (and the Pacific Ocean). We greatly underestimate the serious implications to our future. . . . Therefore . . . my problem is to get the American people to think of conceivable consequences without scaring the American people into thinking that they are going to be dragged into this war."25 Midwestern conservatives and left-leaning pacifists, however, worked assiduously to undermine presidential pleas, retorting at every instance that any grant of aid to Britain further guaranteed U.S. involvement in what was properly understood to be a European war.
The world itself would have to change before Roosevelt would gain any advantage over his adversaries in Congress. The fall of France, the Battle of Britain, and continued Japanese expansion in Asia all helped to whittle away at isolationist claims that Axis powers posed no threat to the United States. In March 1941, Roosevelt managed to persuade members of Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act, which directed armaments to Britain. The fall of that same year, the president convinced Congress to repeal those parts of the Neutrality Act that forbade merchant ships from arming and traveling inhostile sea lanes. It is worth noting, though, that the president still lacked the confidence to seek outright repeal of the act, despite the fact that 70 percent of Americans then agreed that it was "more important to defeat Hitler than stay out of the war." As the New York Times noted, "Mr. Roosevelt is reported to be anxious to avoid a two-month debate in Congress on the Neutrality Act, and that is why modification, rather than repeal, may be decided upon."26
In the face of continued Italian, German, and Japanese aggression, and despite continued calls by the president and the State Department to be the "arsenal of democracy," Congress publicly repudiated presidential efforts to aid France and Britain. Not until the morning of December 7, 1941--when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, killing 2,335 soldiers and 68 civilians, destroying 164 U.S. planes, and sinking or disabling 19 ships--were isolationist sentiments in Congress and the public finally quashed, and did the president secure the domestic political support needed to lead the nation headlong into war.
Though future congresses, and future historians, would soon renounce this era of isolationism, members continued to challenge the presidential use of force. Within a decade, in fact, the two branches of government would once again square off against one another. According to many historians, the Korean War ushered in the modern presidential era, one wherein presidents regularly deploy troops abroad without first acquiring any kind of congressional authorization. By calling the deployment a police action rather than a war, Truman effectively abjured constitutional requirements and established precedent for all subsequent presidents to circumvent Congress when sending the military abroad. What is often forgotten, though, is that Congress hounded Truman throughout the Korean War, driving his approval ratings down into the twenties and paving the way for a 1952 Republican electoral victory. Rattling off a litany of complaints, from the president's firing of General MacArthur to his meager progress toward ending the war, Senator and then-presidential candidate Robert Taft (R-OH) announced that "the greatest failure of foreign policy is an unnecessary war, and we have been involved in such a war now for more than a year. . . . As a matter of fact, every purpose of the war has now failed. We are exactly where we were three years ago, and where we could have stayed."27 Unfortunately for Taft, it was General Eisenhower who could credibly promise to end the war in Korea, and by so doing secure the Republican nomination and win the White House. Taft's comments, nonetheless, reflected growing congressional and public discontent with the president's foreign policy.
During this period, Congress grew increasingly vocal, largely along partisan lines, on a variety of defense-related issues. For starters, Truman's seizure of steel mills was roundly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans within Congress. The Senate voted to withhold funds needed to run the mills, several House Republicans attempted to have Truman impeached, and a number of GOP senators extended the debate on West Germany's inclusion into NATO in an attempt to stop Truman from expanding the western alliance. Republicans also attempted to attach an amendment to the bill barring the president from using U.S. troops to defend West Germany without congressional authorization. After an extended debate over the amendment, congressional Democrats rallied in a unified front to Truman's side, defeating the amendment. The amendment can be viewed as an attempt, by Republicans, to wrestle commander in chief powers from Truman as punishment for Korea. Because the amendment would have required Congress to approve a troop deployment to defend West Germany, consultations and a vote would be needed, even during the heat of an international crisis in Europe. Finally, in 1952 Congress slashed Truman's proposed defense budget by more than 20 percent. Despite lobbying from the administration and defense officials, Congress held firm on the cuts.