WASHINGTON -- As the United States expands its military imprint on the international intervention into Libyan airspace, members of Congress have begun sounding the alarm over the lack of regard being paid by the president to the legal and advisory roles of the legislative branch.
On Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered his endorsement for a no fly zone over Libya. Conspicuous in his statement, however, was the threat to disrupt future operations should the president not consult Congress first.
“Before any further military commitments are made,” Boehner said, “the Administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission.”
A top GOP leadership aide clarified that Boehner wasn’t insisting that Obama needed congressional authorization for the use of military force in Libya. “The focus,” said the aide, “is on Congressional consultation.” At an off-camera briefing hours later, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon called such a request “fair" while arguing that it had been met by the president.
But Boehner's remarks still underscore the domestic political limits Obama faces as he executes, what aides insist will be, a limited, internationally-led military intervention in Libya; which, this weekend, included cruise missile attacks and air strikes. While the majority of lawmakers who have spoken publicly say they support America’s involvement in the U.N.-backed mission (some Republicans wishing it had come sooner), several influential voices have argued -- as Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee did -- that the President “has an obligation to explain” operational objectives to Congress.
Lower on the leadership ranks, a strange-bedfellows coalition of progressive-minded pols and Tea Party members has emerged, not only raising doubts about the underlying strategy but the legality of it as well.
“I think [the president] has a duty and an obligation to come to Congress,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah.) told The Huffington Post. “I see no clear and present danger to the United States of America. I just don't. We're in a bit of the fog at the moment as to what the president is trying to ultimately do.”
“In the absence of a credible, direct threat to the United States and its allies or to our valuable national interests, what excuse is there for not seeking congressional approval of military action?” asked Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) in a separate interview. “I think it is wrong and a usurpation of power and the fact that prior presidents have done it is not an excuse.”
Under the War Powers Act of 1973, the president can send U.S. armed forces into conflict only with the authorization of Congress or if the United States is under attack or serious threat. Absent such authorization, however, the president does have a 48-hour window to report about military deployments overseas. While Congress is supposed to be consulted “in every possible instance,” a broadening interpretation of executive powers has greatly diminished its "sign-off" authority.
“More recently, due to an expansive interpretation of the president’s constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and of his inherent powers to use force without Congressional authorization, the President has welcomed support from the Congress in the form of legislation authorizing him to utilize U.S. military forces in a foreign conflict or engagement in support of U.S. interests, but has not taken the view that he is required to obtain such authorization,” reads a March 2007 Congressional Research Service report.
Nadler and Chaffetz aren’t alone among those classes of lawmakers (old and young) whose politics have been shaped by skepticism with this trend. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), put up a Facebook post on Sunday arguing that the president could not “launch strikes without authorization from the American people” and complaining Congress was being treated like “serfs.”
On Saturday, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, organized a Caucus wide conference call for all House Democrats to get an update on the situation. That same day, another call was organized with a dozen-or-so liberal Democrats to discuss the constitutionality of the president’s actions and chart out possible political responses. At least two members -- Nadler and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) -- have called for an emergency congressional session to address and, potentially, authorize the use of military force.
“We should have been called into session yesterday or the day before,” said Nadler.
With Congress currently on recess, a resolution (let alone a hearing) on U.S. military actions in Libya is unlikely to happen for at least another week. In the interim, the White House, stating that it has operated squarely within legal parameters and with a deft of political caution, has pledged to keep lawmakers posted on events.
“We have been closely consulting Congress regarding the situation in Libya, including in a session the President conducted before his announcement yesterday with the bipartisan leadership,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “The President is committed to maintaining the full support of Congress in the course of ongoing and close consultation.”
To that point, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough held a conference call with top Congressional staffers on Friday afternoon. The President, meanwhile, hosted a meeting with House and Senate leadership later that afternoon. And while Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, declined to call it “consultation" -- more along the lines of "laying it out,” he told Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy -- others were content.
“One of the reasons I predict that there will be some strong bipartisan support in the Congress for the President's decision is because it is a limited mission,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D- MI) said Sunday on "Meet the Press." “I saw that in person in the White House on Friday-- and was very impressed by the caution and the care that the President is putting into this.”
UPDATE: Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) had been circulating a resolution "[e]xpressing the sense of Congress that the President is required to obtain in advance specific statutory authorization for the use of United States Armed Forces in response to civil unrest in Libya." The measure was supported by Reps. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), among others.
"In launching over 100 missiles on Libya this weekend, not only did the Defense Department undermine a carefully constructed consensus, which included the Arab League, but it leveled a devastating blow to our legislative-executive checks and balances," read a statement by Honda, who is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Peace and Security Taskforce. "For the Pentagon to deliberately circumvent Congressional authority sets a new precedent for war powers authorization and sends the message to the world that American democracy is deeply dysfunctional. Secondly, for the Pentagon to pick its battles based on energy security considerations, which is particularly apparent given Libya’s 7th-ranked oil reserves, sends the message that America cares little about the human rights and freedoms of people in countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Western Sudan, or Ivory Coast, without critical energy resources. Thirdly, for the Pentagon to pursue past precedent in employing a shock-and-awe-type invasion, indicates a deliberate disdain for the myriad of smaller pursuable efforts that are possible before pummeling a country with an air assault. I demand a serious conversation in Congress before new countries are incautiously invaded and before America’s legislative branch is eviscerated further."