Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutionsby Senator John McCain
Posted on 2014-01-16
McCAIN. Mr. President, I am pleased today to join my colleague,
the junior Senator from Virginia, as we introduce the War Powers
Consultation Act of 2014.
This legislation is the final product of the National War Powers Commission, which was a bipartisan effort co-led by former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The commission was set up by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia to devise a modern and workable war powers consultation mechanism for the executive and legislative branches. It included some of our Nation's most distinguished and respected thinkers and practitioners of national security policy and law. In 2008, after more than a year of hard work, the commission released the final product--an actual legislative proposal to repeal and replace the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which no American President has ever accepted as constitutional.
As does my colleague, I view our introduction of this legislation today as the start of an important congressional and national debate, not the final word in that debate. We wish to pick up where the National War Powers Commission left off 6 years ago, and we do so fully understanding and hopeful that this legislation should be considered and debated and amended and improved through regular order.
My colleague from Virginia has done a great job on this legislation, and I am proud to join him. I wish to expand a bit on why updating the War Powers Resolution is such a worthwhile endeavor for the Senate to consider right now.
The Constitution gives the power to declare war to the Congress, but Congress has not formally declared war since June of 1942 even though our Nation has been involved in dozens of military actions of one scale or another since that time. There is a reason for this. The nature of war is changing. It is increasingly unlikely that the combat operations our Nation will be involved in will resemble those of World War II, where the standing armies and navies of nation states squared off against those of rival nation states on clearly defined fields of battle. Rather, the conflicts in which increasingly we find ourselves and for which we must prepare will be murkier, harder to reconcile with the traditional notions of warfare; they may be more limited in their objectives, their scope, and their duration; and they likely will not conclude with a formal surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.
The challenge for all of us serving in Congress is this: How do we reconcile the changing nature of war with Congress's proper role in the declaration of war? It is not exactly a new question, but it is a profound one, for unless we in Congress are prepared to cede our constitutional authority over matters of war to the executive, we need a more workable arrangement for consultation and decisionmaking between the executive and legislative branches.
We have seen several manifestations of this challenge in recent years. In 2011 President Obama committed U.S. military forces to combat operations in Libya to protect civilian populations from imminent slaughter by a brutal, anti-American tyrant. I, for one, believe he was right to do so. But 6 months later, when our armed services were still involved in kinetic actions in Libya--not just supporting our NATO allies but conducting air-to-ground operations and targeted strikes from armed, unmanned aerial vehicles--the administration claimed, as other administrations would, that it had no obligations to Congress under the War Powers Resolution because our Armed Forces were not involved in combat operations. That struck many Members of Congress, including me, as fundamentally at odds with reality, and unfortunately it pushed more Members of Congress into opposition against the mission itself.
More recently, we saw the opposite problem manifested with regard to Syria. Perhaps due to the backlash in Congress that the administration's handling of the Libya conflict engendered, President Obama decided to seek congressional authorization for limited airstrikes against the Assad regime after it slaughtered more than 1,400 of its own citizens with chemical weapons last August. An operation that likely would have lasted a few days and thus been fully consistent with the President's authority under the existing War Powers Resolution had he decided to act decisively and take limited military action instead devolved into a stinging legislative repudiation of executive action. The tragic result was that the Assad regime was spared any meaningful consequences for its use of a weapon of mass destruction against innocent men, women, and children, and, as with Libya, the forces that want to turn America away from the world were not checked but empowered.
Some of us may see the problem in these two instances as a failure of Presidential leadership, and I would agree, but I also believe the examples of Libya and Syria represent the broader problem we as a nation face: What is the proper war power authority of the executive and legislative branches when it comes to limited conflicts, which are increasingly the kinds of conflicts with which we are faced? It is essential for the Congress and the President to work together to define a new war powers consultative agreement that reflects the nature of conflict in the 21st century and is in line with our Constitution. Our Nation does not have 535 commanders in chief. We have one--the President--and that role as established by our Constitution [[Page S442]] must be respected. Our Nation is poorly served when Members of Congress try to micromanage the Commander in Chief in matters of war.
At the same time, now more than ever, we need to create a broader and more durable national consensus on foreign policy and national security, especially when it comes to matters of war and armed conflict. We need to find ways to make internationalist policies more politically sustainable.
After the September 11 attack, we embarked on an expansive foreign policy. Spending on defense and foreign assistance went up, and energy shifted to the executive. Now things are changing. Americans want to pull back from the world. Our foreign assistance and defense budgets are declining. The desire to curb Presidential power across the board is growing, and the political momentum is shifting toward the Congress. America has gone through this kind of political rebalancing before, and much of the time we have gotten it wrong. That is how we got isolationism and disarmament after World War I, that is how we got a hollow army after Vietnam, and that is how we weakened our national security after the Cold War in the misplaced hope of cashing in on a peace dividend. We can't afford to repeat these mistakes.
A new war powers resolution--one that is recognized as both constitutional and workable in practice--can be an important contribution to this effort. It can more effectively invest in the Congress the critical decisions that impact our national security. It can help build a more durable consensus in favor of the kinds of policies we need to sustain our global leadership and protect our Nation. In short, the legislation we are introducing today can restore a better balance to the way national security decisionmaking should work in a great democracy such as ours.
Let me say again. Neither the Senator from Virginia nor I believe the legislation we are introducing today answers all of the monumental and difficult questions surrounding the issue of war powers. We believe this is a matter of transcendent importance to our Nation, and we as a deliberative body of our government should debate this issue, and we look forward to that debate. This legislation should be seen as a way of starting that discussion both here in the Congress and across our Nation. We owe that to ourselves and our constituents. Most of all, we owe that to the brave men and women who serve our Nation in uniform and are called to risk their lives in harm's way for the sake of our Nation's national defense.
Before I yield to my tardy colleague from Virginia, I wish to mention again another reason why I think this legislation should be the beginning of a serious debate which we should bring to some conclusion. The fact is that no President of the United States has recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Act. That is a problem in itself. That is a perversion, frankly, of the Constitution of the United States of America. That is one reason, but the most important reason is that I believe we are living in incredibly dangerous times. When we look across the Middle East, when we look at Asia and the rise in the tensions in that part of the world and we look at the conflicts that are becoming regional--and whose fault they are is a subject for another debate and discussion, but the fact is that we are in the path of some kind of conflict in which--whether the United States of America wants to or not--we may have to be involved in some ways.
We still have vital national security interests in the Middle East. It is evolving into a chaotic situation, and one can look from the Mediterranean all the way to the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aqaba, and throughout the region. So I believe the likelihood of us being involved in some way or another in some conflict is greater than it has been since the end of the Cold War, and I believe the American people deserve legislation and a clear definition of the responsibilities of the Congress of the United States and that of the President of the United States.
Again, I thank my colleague from Virginia, whose idea this is, who took a great proposal that was developed at the University of Virginia and was kind enough to involve me in this effort. I thank him for it. I thank him for his very hard work on it, despite the fact that, as the Chair will recognize, he was late for this discussion.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Virginia.