It was the rarest of sightings: Last week, a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives approved a resolution to restrict the president’s ability to go to war with Iran. The vote happened one week after the Trump administration assassinated via drone strike Iran’s top general. Government officials have offered only the flimsiest of evidence to justify the attack while putting the country on the path toward yet another conflict in the Middle East.
What’s so striking about the House’s symbolic rebuke of Trump is that Congress bothered to do it at all. For decades, America’s elected representatives have green-lit bloated defense budgets year after year, allowed Democratic and Republican presidents to wage endless wars around the world, and done little to assert the legislative branch’s authority when it comes to one of the most difficult decisions a lawmaker may face. The last time Congress formally declared a state of war was in 1942 with Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. In other words, they’ve all but abdicated their constitutional duty to decide when the country goes to war and with whom.
“Our system is not designed to have one person in charge of war,” Rep. Justin Amash, an independent from Michigan who quit the Republican Party last year, tells Rolling Stone. “But that’s the system we now have.”
How did this happen? Why is Congress asleep at the wheel?
On September 18th, 2001, Congress passed legislation authorizing the use of military force against the planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, paving the way for the Afghan invasion and hunt for Osama bin Laden. Almost a year later, on October 16th, 2002, Congress passed another Authorization for the Use of Military Force, better known as an AUMF. This one paved the way for President Bush’s war in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
But in the years that followed, the scope and meaning of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs were stretched beyond recognition. They were used by Democratic and Republican administrations to justify interventions on multiple continents and against terrorist organizations and individuals that, in some cases, didn’t exist at the time the two AUMFs were enacted. Instead of pushing back, Congress went mute. With a few lonely exceptions over the years, elected officials from both parties stood idly by as different administrations ordered troops all over the world, often with shifting objectives and no end in sight, costing tens of thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars. “We’ve let the executive walk all over this institution,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
There’s a constitutional argument for Congress reclaiming its war powers; there’s also a practical one. Elected members of Congress are the voices of the people back home. Without real debate over whether to declare war, citizens have little say over one of the most serious and consequential decisions a government can make.
“I represent more troops than any other member of this body. I buried one of them earlier today at Arlington,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s most ardent supporters in the House, in announcing his intention to vote in favor of the resolution. “If our servicemembers have the courage to fight and die in these wars, Congress ought to have the courage to vote for or against them.”
Interviews with the lawmakers who have resisted endless wars dictated by the White House shed light on why the legislative branch has been reluctant to step up.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a stalwart progressive, calls a vote to go to war “one of the most difficult votes anyone can make.” Foreign policy is a difficult and unpredictable issue that can sink the careers of politicians with an eye on higher office. Merkley says members of Congress see limited incentive to do their job given the potential consequences.
“There’s a collective group of senators and House members who are like, ‘Well, if we leave this with the president we don’t have to take these tough votes over the use of force,'” he says. “People look back at the vote to authorize the administration to go after Saddam Hussein. Biden probably thinks about that just about every day.”
In 2018, Merkley introduced legislation that would repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs and put a three-year expiration date on future AUMFs. The bill never got out of the Foreign Relations Committee. Still, Merkley continues to speak out about the need for Congress to challenge presidential war powers. “Presidents did not respect the actual language of the AUMFs,” he says, “so we need to explicitly slap them upside the head and restore the role of Congress.”
Rep. Amash, a libertarian who is a critic of runaway defense spending and interventionist foreign policy, says Congress’ silence on war powers is indicative of a broader abdication by rank-and-file lawmakers on most business.
“On ordinary legislative matters, most members of Congress don’t think anymore,” Amash says. “They just follow whatever they’re told by their leadership. They prefer to have the president decide these matters and then they can later say, ‘Yeah, I supported it’ or, ‘No, I opposed it’ without actually having to take a vote and go on the record.”
He adds: “I think a lot of members of Congress are used to that lifestyle and they like it. They don’t want responsibility. They want the job, not the responsibility.”
This is a bipartisan problem. Under Obama, most Democrats — especially ones in competitive districts — passed up the chance to check the commander-in-chief when he sent troops into Libya in 2011 or after it was revealed he kept a kill list of terrorist leaders targeted for assassination by drone. Amash says he’s spoken with Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns who believe a hawkish stance on war and intelligence issues will benefit them. “They view that as the kind of thing that will distinguish them in their more Republican district,” he says.
The most recent debate over the Trump administration’s killing of Qasem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force, revealed another possible reason for Capitol Hill’s reluctance to reclaim its authority on war powers: a fear of looking weak. In one example, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the prestigious Judiciary Committee, ridiculously accused House Democrats of being “in love with terrorists” for daring to debate (as is their constitutional duty) President Trump’s authority to declare war and launch future attacks on Iran. Collins, who later apologized, wasn’t the only Republican trotting out this tired weak-on-terrorism soundbite.
Sen. Bernie Sanders cited the potential for such attacks as one reason lawmakers have gone silent on war powers. “I think perhaps the answer has been the fear that somebody will be seen as being soft on terrorism, not prepared to defend the troops or whatever,” Sanders says. “But the truth is we have seen under Republican and Democratic administrations Congress not utilizing its responsibilities under the Constitution.”
There are signs that this political calculus is changing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she’d consider repealing one or both of the AUMFs. Last year, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to Congress’ annual defense spending bill that would have defunded any offensive strike in Iran by Trump. The amendment didn’t pass, but 27 Republicans voted for it — an indication there’s support in both parties for reining in expansive presidential war powers. This week, Khanna and Sanders introduced the No War Against Iran Act, which would have the same effect as Khanna’s amendment.
“We can’t argue the national security conversation in the George W. Bush frame of the war on terror,” Khanna says. “We have to change the narrative and be willing to fight elections on that. If you look at the success Ron and Rand Paul have had, the success of Bernie, and how Trump ran his campaign — though disingenuous — about not getting us into these wars, and I think there’s a winning message for the Democratic Party.”
For his part, Rep. Amash says probably the only way to repeal the AUMFs or restrict presidential war powers will be to elect a president who favors those changes or smuggle those reforms in a major bill that members of both parties feel they must support. “I don’t see how that goes anywhere in the Senate under Republicans and I can’t imagine the president giving up powers,” he says. “It almost has to be one of these things where they put it in must-pass legislation where you might be able to coax some people into doing it. But that’s not the way Congress should operate.”
Until then, Congress’ refusal to act — and the ever-growing war powers of the president — means a permanent state of war and anxiety for American people and the rest of the world.
Sen. Wyden recounted a recent town hall in Monmouth, Oregon, a small town in a county Trump won in 2016. A woman came up to him in tears and put her hand in his, worried about what the escalating situation in Iran may mean for her son serving overseas. “My boy is stationed in Kuwait,” Wyden remembers her saying. “He’s supposed to come home in 12 days. Is he going to be OK?”
The encounter, Wyden says, is a reminder that there are real and dire consequences to Congress’ inaction. “I’m always struck by how these debates that go on in Washington,” he says, “that seem so sterile compared to when a mom is in front of you in a small town in Oregon, crying because for her, what she wants to know, and what she deserves to know, is if her boy on the other side of the world is going to be safe.”