On Dec. 14, US president Barack Obama addressed reporters from a podium at the Pentagon. This was after one of his usual visits with military commanders and advisors to take stock of progress in America’s counter-ISIL air campaign. “We are hitting ISIL harder than ever,” Obama stated. “Coalition aircraft—our fighters, bombers and drones—have been increasing the pace of airstrikes, nearly 9,000 as of today. Last month, in November, we dropped more bombs on ISIL targets than any other month since this campaign started.”
The most revealing aspect of president Obama’s remarks, however, was not what he said about the state of conflict or how many bombs have been dropped on ISIL targets by US and coalition aircraft. Rather, it’s what he didn’t say: that, despite 9,000 air strikes over 16 months of warfare, the US Congress has still not voted on—let alone debated—an authorization for the use of military force that would require the American people’s elected representatives to become stakeholders in the war. Indeed, for every American who considers the US Constitution a sacred document, the fact that lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have not even spent the time and effort to fulfill its most important constitutional duty is, at the least, an embarrassment, and at most a dereliction of duty.
Fortunately, just because Congress, as an institution, has not cobbled up political courage during a time of war does not mean that individual members have not gone the extra mile. Senators Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia and Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona; as well as Congressional representatives Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts; Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, and Scott Rigell, another Republican from Virginia; in addition to South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who recently suspended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, have all introduced their own AUMFs (Authorization for Use of Military Force) in an attempt to kick-start the conversation and cajole their congressional leadership to finally allow a full and open debate on the subject of war and peace.
Due in part to partisan differences over what such an authorization would entail, Republicans and Democrats have been stymied on the issue. The failure of president Obama’s proposed AUMF, which did not even receive a vote in committee, has essentially been used as an excuse to avoid the subject all together. America’s lawmakers have in effect admitted that debating and passing an AUMF is too difficult, politically, without explicitly saying so.
That excuse, however, no longer washes now that representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee who is a vocal proponent on the need for greater congressional involvement, has crafted an AUMF that finely balances the competing priorities between the most hawkish Republican and the most dovish Democrat.
Schiff’s proposal, entitled the “Consolidated Authorization for the Use of Military Force Resolution,” does one of two things: First, it combines the authority to use force against al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Islamic State, and its associated forces into one document in order to streamline the president’s war authority. And second, it provides the president of the United States with all of the authority he needs to prosecute the war against terrorism—all the while presenting a grand compromise that allows Republicans and Democrats to declare victory.
Democrats receive the time limitation (three years under the resolution) and extensive reporting requirements from the president that they have been calling for. There are several accountability measures that are built in to Schiff’s proposal, including a requirement that the administration publish a list of terrorist organizations that the US military is targeting, and a report to Congress that explains the president’s rationale for labeling a specific militant group as a targetable affiliate or associate of al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, or the ISIL. The kind of transparency that is mandated by Schiff’s AUMF has never been included in any other force resolution proposed by members of Congress.
Republicans, meanwhile, are granted major concessions as well. The president would be permitted to use US ground forces against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIL whenever he (or she) believes it is in the national security’s interest to do so. In other words, there is no congressional limitation on the commander-in-chief’s power to deploy US troops into combat.
Yet it also provides Congress with the ability to modify or abolish the president’s ability to use ground troops under Schiff’s authorization if a joint resolution is passed by both houses—a mechanism that not only bestows a critical lever to the American people’s representatives, but an authority that Congress can wield as a deterrent to a risky, unnecessary, or hasty deployment of ground troops. Because it would be a national embarrassment for any president to lose a vote in Congress during a time of war, this section in Schiff’s draft forces the executive branch to methodically debate all other options before signing off on a US troop presence.
The question naturally arises: Why does it matter? If US pilots are already in the air and US trainers are already on the ground, what difference does it make if Congress authorizes a war that has been going on for nearly a year and a half?
On the merits, congressional authorization for an ongoing conflict makes little difference. The Obama administration’s use of a previous AUMF against al-Qaeda, from president Obama’s standpoint, meets all of the statutory preconditions that are necessary to prosecute an armed conflict against ISIL. Yet for the American people, an AUMF is more than a legal document—it’s the beginning of a nationwide conservation of war and peace, one where the costs, risks, benefits, and national interests of a war are discussed openly in front of the American people for the good of the country.
A war resolution not only provides a legal foundation for a war, but the kind of domestic political support that is essential in ensuring that the American public is behind the effort and that the Congress is as deeply invested in the campaign’s success as the executive branch is. By blocking a full debate in front of the country, the House and Senate leadership are depriving the American people of that basic right.
It is a rarity in today’s Washington for a lawmaker to create a piece of legislation that addresses the primary concerns and demands of both parties. But Schiff’s proposed AUMF does exactly that. Excuses among congressional leadership that debating and voting on an AUMF is too tough is no longer a justification for avoiding a national discussion that the American people demand. It’s time for House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to formally start the process.