Time for a Return to Checks and Balances


In December, 2007, the Boston Globe published a Q&A with then-candidate Barack Obama in which the subject of Executive War Powers was addressed.  “In what circumstances, if any,” Charlie Savage asked, “would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress?”  Mr. Obama’s answer was unequivocal in its condemnation of unilateral executive action relating to war:

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. . . .  In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.  History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch.  It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”

Senator Obama went on to address specifically the question of offensive military action Iran, again reiterating his commitment to explicit congressional authorization and suggesting that diplomacy should always precede any decision to go to war:

“As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. 23, which states in part that ‘any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.’  The recent NIE tells us that Iran in 2003 halted its effort to design a nuclear weapon.  While this does not mean that Iran is no longer a threat to the United States or its allies, it does give us time to conduct aggressive and principled personal diplomacy aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

My, what a difference an election makes.  The Senator who made criticism of George W. Bush’s “imperial presidency” a cornerstone of his campaign is now, as President, quite oblivious to his own constitutional limitations with regard to executive power.  Indeed, it has been observed that President Obama’s disregard for the limits of his office exceed anything conceived by his predecessor.  

It’s encouraging, then, that a bipartisan coalition of representatives have decided to put the Constitution ahead of politics with a resolution taking the President to task for continuing to appropriate resources to the Libyan war effort without congressional approval.  Although the resolution doesn’t have any real “teeth” behind it, the principle behind it is one that has been increasingly neglected in our republic.

If the Founding Fathers understood anything, it was power’s tendency to concentrate itself.  This is why our government is constructed the way it is, with authority distributed equally among three branches of government.  In recent years, however, the federal government has conducted itself more like a three-ring circus than a constitutional republic.  Our judges have gotten into the habit of legislating from the bench, our representatives have become so corrupt, decadent and inefficient that they’ve rendered themselves practically obsolete, and our Presidents have come to preside over a powerful, bureaucratic fiefdom that operates with virtual autonomy.

President Obama has insisted that his actions thus far are in accordance with the War Powers Act, yet he has allowed the timeframe for congressional approval to expire and appears intent on an ambiguous and open-ended financial commitment to the war in Libya.  At this point neither the Congress nor the American people know what to make of our involvement in Libya.  Why are we there?  Why Libya and not Egypt?  Why not Syria?  Why not Iran?  Are we to satisfy ourselves with the President’s assurances that “he has his reasons,” and leave it at that?  

Say what you want about President Bush’s motives for pursuing a congressional resolution for war with Iraq, at least he secured a resolution.  He respected the process.  Despite this he was condemned by the Liberal Left as the most dishonest, unlawful, and villainous war-monger ever to occupy the White House.  It is ironic that now those who abhorred the vast expansion of executive power under the Bush administration are witnessing its continued growth under the governance of the man who promised them hope and change.  

All politics aside, the question at issue is quite simple:  Does the Constitution mean what it says or not?  Or perhaps the question should be, Do we care was the Constitution says, or not?  

Thomas Jefferson said, “Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution.  Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.”  The exercise of checks and balances help assure that the federal government acts in the limited fashion intended.  Do we want Presidents to be able to commit American lives and resources to foreign hostilities without restraint?  Do we want a Congress that is impotent in the face of an executive who deliberately usurps powers that don’t rightly belong to him?

If the recent action by the House of Representatives is any indication, the answer is no.  This is a good thing.  Perhaps it’s the only thing our two parties can agree on.  At least it’s a start.


About Author

Kenneth L. Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society, 1220 L St. NW, Suite 100-371, Washington, DC 20005. Email: info@centerforajustsociety.org and website: http://www.centerforajustsociety.org.