Taking responsibility

There’s a solid column in the Washington Post this morning from lawyers David Rivkin and Lee Casey on the scope and limits of Congressional control over executive actions. Here’s the conclusion:

If Congress believes the war is lost, or not worth winning, it must take responsibility for the consequences of forcing a U.S. withdrawal. Otherwise, it must leave the president to direct the war and to bear responsibility for the decisions he has made and will make.

We now live in a government environment that is far, far removed from that which the Framers envisioned. When the Framers gave to Congress simultaneously the sole right to declare war and the power of the purse, they never imagined the United States as a country that would have an enormous standing army for, literally, generations so that very, very few remember a time when it wasn’t so. They envisioned a country in which, in order to prosecute a war, an army would have to be raised and equipped and that takes time and money.

It isn’t like that any more and Congress’s ability to check the powers of the Commander-in-Chief in matters of war are very, very limited. They can remove the president. They can rescind the act that allowed the war in the first place (as the Congress eventually did with the Vietnam War-enabling Gulf of Tonkin Resolution). This would, no doubt, foment a constitutional crisis.

Or they can cut the funding for a war already in progress, taking responsibility for the consequences of whatever might follow.

With the risk-averse permanent incumbents in our modern Congress it’s hard to imagine them doing so.

6 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Dave, some of the founders did support a standing army — they were generally called Federalists or High Federalists. Hamilton made a number of arguments in support of a standing army in the federalist papers. I believe the counter-argument was that such an army would eventually overthrow the government and serve as a source of friction with civilians during peacetime. I would say that the Constitution adequately addressed these concerns.

    OTOH, it may not have addressed issues of foreign wars, since the framing discussions appear to have been built around the concerns of invasion and rebellion. But the founders’ generation did invade Canada and the Barbary Coast, so the idea itself wasn’t repugnant. I just don’t think external wars bothered them as much.

  • MinorRipper Link

    Not sure if everyone has seen these videos of the US military in Iraq or not, but they are pretty amazing: Hopefully our ‘surge’ will not include too many of these types…

  • Here, for example, is what Madison wrote in Federalist 46:

    Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made. Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence.

    in defense of a standing army. Our own standing army is nowhere near the size he suggests in terms of manpower but it’s that size or over in terms of GDP. Our current military budget is roughly $450 billion per year (excluding pensions and veterans’ benefits which would add to that number substantially). GDP is something like $11 trillion. I maintain my point: I don’t think the founders contemplated a permanent standing army of the size we had, the ability of any U. S. army to wage war at the scale at which we are capable to today, nor the appropriations required to do so and the leeway that would give the executive.

  • Dave,

    You could say the framers did not intend any number of other things in our government. Here’s a short list:

    – 2 Party stranglehold on government where a broken primary system combined with huge amounts of money.

    – Federal income tax. The Income tax is what makes a standing Army possible in the first place. The income tax and social security tax gives Congress a huge amount of power because in a bureaucracy, the money = influence, prestige and importance.

    – Social security and other federal income redistribution programs

    – The primary purpose of a Senator or Representative is to make sure federal dollars are spent in his/her State or district.

    In my view, Congress has the power and authority to influence and end this war if they want to – the problem is that they’re not willing to. Perhaps the framers didn’t intend for a bunch of weasels to inhabit the Capital building, but it seems like that’s what we have today.

  • Our conclusions are much the same, Andy.

    When I write “the Framers did not intend”, it’s shorthand for something else: our Constitution is an artifact, a tool. The tool was designed with certain purposes in mind; without others. While the Framers intended to a) limit the Executive’s ability to wage war; and b) force consensus-building as a necessary pre-condition to going to war their intentions have been subverted by the creation of the permanent security establishment over the last 60 years.

    While I think we needed that security establishment in facing the challenges posed by the Soviet Union, I don’t think it’s nearly so obvious that the same security establishment will be effective in facing the challenges posed by stateless terrorism. My present state of mind is deal with the states first.

    I think there are many other significant differences between the Congress of 1800 and the Congress of today. The raw power, obviously. But, sadly, another difference is that today’s Congressmen are mostly bureaucrats and permanent incumbents. Jefferson, Madison, or George Mason wouldn’t have given a damn about the effects of this or that vote on their future political prospects: they’d just as soon have gone home (George Mason, in fact, did just that).

  • PD Shaw Link

    Dave, I probably agree with you on the larger points, perhaps not the specifics though. I personally believe that Hamilton foresaw the need for a permanent standing army and navy at a size commensurate with the needs of a commercial power. Could he have imagined the actual size? Probably not. Other founders would certainly be shocked that such a powerful army could exist without an ever present threat of military coup. That argument, preserved in the procedures of the Constitution, is one which I believe Hamilton won.

    In 1798, the United States went to war with France without a declaration from Congress. I don’t believe the founders were sticklers, particularly where their personal liberty was not directly at stake.

    I personally think that the power to stop the Iraq war lies at the ballot box with the election of a new president.

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