Congress Can’t Duck Voting on ISIS Forever
Policy + Politics

Congress Can’t Duck Voting on ISIS Forever

Congressional leaders have done just about everything they can to avoid taking a direct position on President Obama’s decision to use U.S. military force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, committing only to the relatively uncontroversial request to arm and train the moderate Syrian opposition. The strategy is obvious: If the administration’s approach fails, they avoid blame; if it succeeds, they claim credit for allowing it to proceed.

Criticism of their reluctance to to engage in debate on the issue has been growing, though, both from within Congress’s own ranks, and from outside. It’s not hard to see why. U.S. planes are now bombing targets in Iraq based on a law passed 13 years ago – known as Authorization for Use of Military Force – to approve a war in Afghanistan. They are hitting targets in Syria based partly on a 12-year-old AUMF sanctioning war in Iraq.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has suggested that Congress might start discussing some sort of new authorization of military action in the lame duck session that begins in November. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) would prefer to wait until next year, but said that he would consider holding a vote – though only if the president were to call Congress back to Washington.

"The president typically in a situation like this would call for an authorization vote and go sell that to the American people and send a resolution to [Congress]," Boehner said in an interview on ABC News Sunday. “The president has not done that. He believes he has authority under existing resolutions to do what he's done.”

Boehner later said that he believes the president does have the authority to attack ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but added that he thinks Congress ought to debate the issue anyway. Left unexplained was why he has chosen not to exercise his authority to recall the House on his own and have the debate he acknowledges is necessary.

Some members aren’t satisfied with Boehner’s wait-and-see approach, arguing that, having committed the country to a military engagement that he said could last “years,” the President should be forced to make his case to Congress.

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“Speaker Boehner has said that he can’t bring up a war resolution unless the president asks for one, a dubious irony given that he is suing the President for exercising too great a prerogative when it comes to domestic policy,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff in an email to The Fiscal Times Tuesday.

“It is also fundamentally wrong,” Schiff continued. “The constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war – it doesn’t say, “’but only when asked by the president, and not around midterm elections.’”

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been one of the most vocal critics of the administration’s go-it-alone approach on the Senate side, and has been calling for Reid to have the Senate debate the issue since June. He’s been joined, among others, by likely GOP presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has accused the president of “illegally” acting on his own against ISIS.

Congressional staffers, speaking on background, have made it clear that lawmakers don’t want to get their fingerprints on anything that could be construed as committing U.S. forces to another long-term engagement.

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“A lot of people up here really don’t want to do this,” said a senior House staffer, adding that leadership is unwilling to bring a new authorization to a vote because, “There’s no certainty as to how it would turn out.”

Meanwhile, national security experts are concerned about what might happen when Congress does eventually get involved.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, a defense and national security expert with the Brookings Institution, said he is wary of language being sought by some Democrats and Republicans that would proscribe the administration’s military mission against ISIS, and that the president and the country would be better off with no additional legislation than new legislation that would unnecessarily hamstring the president.

“The Democratic ideas to just try to legislate in hard concrete no ground troops or a specific time horizon just make me cringe,” said O’Hanlon, a Democrat. “If what Congress is basically saying is come back to us for any more authority, then okay, we can have that discussion. But if what they’re saying is the clear understanding here is that anything you would do against ISIL, you better always stay within these constraints, and we’re just issuing that edict now, once and forever, that’s really too bad --- because I think this is an important war not to lose.”

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For example, he said, the “no boots on the ground” limitation is so vague that it might prevent “small to mid-sized options” that would be highly effective.

If Congress forbids ground combat forces, for example, and then “some future Special Operations commander says well I’ve got 800 Delta Force guys who can go and take down some bad guys for you – and yeah, they’re going to have to do some shooting and we’ll probably lose a few of our own people.” How does that request get ascertained or assessed? Is that viewed as violating the prohibition or not? Or being under the threshold? There’s so much murkiness.”

O’Hanlon said that the best result would be a measure allowing the president broad authority to fight terrorism that also contained language requiring him to seek lawmakers’ agreement that the groups he identifies actually pose a threat to the U.S.

Related: Boehner Says Defeating ISIS Means Using Ground Troops

Short of this approach, O’Hanlon said, the best approach would be for Congress to approve the $500 million in appropriations needed to train and arm members of the Free Syrian Army and a supplemental defense budget to finance the stepped up air campaign against ISIS.  In that way, Congress would be able to use the power of the purse to rein in Obama if they deem that necessary, without passing specific new authorization legislation.

It seems likely that, at least by January or February, Congress will make its way toward some sort of discussion of the (already taken) decision to take action against ISIS. What’s not clear though is how much blood and treasure the country will have expended by that time with no specific authorization from the people’s elected representatives.

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