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How Presidents Wage War Without Congress


Last week, the House of Representatives voted to require President Trump to seek congressional approval before taking further military action against Iran. The measure now goes to the Senate, where its fate is less certain. And President Trump is not expected to sign anything that restricts his authority, which raises the question, what are the limits to a president's power to make war? We posed that question to senior Washington correspondent Ron Elving.


FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Congress has not declared war on anyone since World War II.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Congress, with overwhelming acclaim, then voted the declaration of a state of war, and the president signed it three hours after this historic scene.

ELVING: Yet the U.S. has made war since then in many parts of the world. How can this be? The Constitution was very clear that the power to declare war belonged exclusively to Congress. But when it came to actually waging a war, the Constitution followed its pattern of dividing the power between the executive and legislative branches. The president was to be the commander in chief of the armed forces, but the Congress was to raise and support those forces. The president gave the orders, but Congress had to pay for it. Congress had to pass the appropriations bills, levy the taxes and pass the debt measures necessary to finance the fighting.

That system worked for about a century and a half. Outside of declared wars, there were occasional commitments of troops outside the borders of the U.S. under several presidents. But Congress sat still for all that, seeing it as less than actual war or calculating that there was little to be gained by opposing it. In the decades since World War II, however, the challenge to the constitutional separation of powers has grown far more consequential. Throughout the decades, presidents committed U.S. troops to fight communists in the fight we knew as the Cold War.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In Tokyo, the United States moved swiftly to translate into action the United Nations' call to arms against the aggressor. American occupation troops in Japan are hurried to the defense of the Korean republic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Combat units of the United States Marine Corps arrive in Vietnam, joining other Marines already there.

ELVING: The peak in the pattern was Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: This new act of aggression, aimed directly at our own forces, again brings home to all of us in the United States the importance of the struggle for peace and security in Southeast Asia.

ELVING: Nearly a decade later, as that conflict had stretched into another president's second term, Congress rallied to reassert its constitutional role.


JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. The Congress of the United States, in a historic action today, made effective a limitation on the powers of the president to make war.

ELVING: In 1973, Democratic majorities in both chambers passed the War Powers Resolution, requiring the president to notify Congress within 48 hours when troops were sent into harm's way. That legislation also required presidents to end any foreign military action after 60 days unless Congress had declared war or passed an authorization for the use of military force, a phrase that's come to be known as an AUMF. Since then, however, the law has fallen short of its authors' intent, in part because presidents found ways to work around it and also because Congress has shown itself willing to follow the president's lead in matters of foreign conflict.


FAITH DANIELS: There's a new war this morning in the Persian Gulf. Iraq turns to bloodshed to settle its oil price dispute with Kuwait.

ELVING: A different level of difficulty arose after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor country of Kuwait in 1990.


DEBORAH NORVILLE: This is the seventh week of Operation Desert Shield, and now there are about 150,000 American military in the region. And the number is growing every day.

ELVING: President George H.W. Bush deployed hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf region before Congress had taken a vote to authorize it.


GEORGE H W BUSH: I know what it's like to have fallen comrades and see young kids die in battle, and it's only the president that should be asked to make the decision.

ELVING: Congress did authorize that use of force by relatively narrow margins in January of 1991, and the first Persian Gulf War began just days later. Since then, we have seen presidents outmaneuver Congress again and again - President Bill Clinton in the Balkans, and later, President Obama battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. President George W. Bush called for two authorizations for the use of military force, the first just days after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Congress immediately approved military action against terrorists, wherever they might be, and Bush soon sent forces to Afghanistan.


GEORGE W BUSH: Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

ELVING: The following year, Congress debated and approved another authorization, this one focusing on Iraq.


LISA MYERS: The debate was emotional. But in the end, the vote empowering President Bush to go to war with Iraq was larger than the vote 11 years ago authorizing his father to take on Saddam Hussein.

ELVING: One or both of these measures has been cited to justify literally thousands of drone strikes and other military actions against those the U.S. has labeled terrorists ever since...


MARGARET BRENNAN: It appears the U.S. military has launched a missile strike in Iraq.

ELVING: ...Including the one that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani this month.


BRENNAN: A revered Iranian general and one of that country's most powerful military leaders. He is considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist.

ELVING: President Trump has often described Bush's 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq as, quote, "the worst single mistake" in the history of U.S. foreign policy. But President Bush can at least argue he submitted his request to Congress before his invasion of Iraq began. Trump has yet to seek congressional approval for any of his actions in the Middle East...


LESTER HOLT: Good evening. Nearly 3,000 additional American troops have been ordered to the Middle East tonight amid a dangerous...

ELVING: ...And, in the latest instance, did not even inform congressional leaders of his plans, other than via Twitter. He said some of his opponents among the leaders in Congress could not be trusted with the information. In that atmosphere of mutual distrust, it is hard to see how the founding fathers' ideal of shared powers could succeed in war-making or any other aspect of national policy.

Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNARKY PUPPY'S "SHOFUKAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.