War-Funding Mystery Solved

07/27/2007 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When you're a mathematician who analyzes weapons systems as an
independent consultant to the U.S. government, you pay attention to
military appropriations (not least because you like to get paid). So
it was eyebrow-raising to receive a message from a weapons analyst who
fits that description telling me how much he'd learned from Adam
Cohen's recent editorial, "Just What the Founders Feared: An Imperial
President Goes to War."

The editorial, which goes to the heart of the war-funding debate,
describes the attitude of the Constitution's framers toward
presidential power, which they regarded with apprehension especially
when it came to the monarchical prerogative of making war.

Cohen writes, "They were revolutionaries who detested kings, and their
great concern when they established the United States was that they
not accidentally create a kingdom." [Emphasis added.]
To keep that from happening, "they sharply limited presidential
authority, which Edmund Randolph, a Constitutional Convention delegate
and the first attorney general, called "the foetus of monarchy.' "

The editorial is emphatic about this. Although it appeared in The New
York Times
on July 23, it should have appeared five or six years ago
-- in late 2001 or early 2002, pick a date, but certainly before the
invasion of Iraq. And here's why:

The founders were particularly wary of giving the
president power over war. They were haunted by Europe's
history of conflicts started by self-aggrandizing kings.

[Emphasis added.] John Jay, the first chief justice of the United
States, noted in Federalist No. 4 that 'absolute monarchs will often
make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the
purposes and objects merely personal.'

Many critics of the Iraq war are reluctant to suggest that President
Bush went into it in anything but good faith. But James Madison,
widely known as the father of the Constitution, might have been more
skeptical. "In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be
multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to
be enjoyed," he warned. "It is in war, finally, that laurels
are to be gathered; and it is the executive brow they are to
[Emphasis added.]

When the weapons analyst, who happens to be a friend and who shall
remain nameless for obvious reasons, read the last part of that
sentence about the laurels, he says an image of Bush in a flight suit
and the "Mission Accomplished" banner prominently displayed on the
aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln instantly came to his mind. In
that context the next paragraph was revelatory, solving what had been
a mystery to him. It tells exactly how "the framers expected
Congress to keep the president on an especially short leash on
military matters."

The Constitution authorizes Congress to
appropriate money for an army, but prohibits appropriations for longer
than two years.
[Emphasis added]. [Alexander] Hamilton
explained that the limitation prevented Congress from vesting "in the
executive department permanent funds for the support of an army, if
they were even incautious enough to be willing to repose in it so
improper a confidence."

"I had known but not understood why such appropriations never exceed
two years," my friend the weapons analyst wrote. "But there it is,
Article 1 Section 8. I have developed a much deeper respect and
appreciation for the honesty, integrity and foresight of the Founders.
And, in addition to those qualities, they were smart."

Yup, check the 12th clause of that article and section. It's goddamn clever.