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Congress Must End Wars on Autopilot

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., with fellow House Democrats, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in 2016. (Lauren Victoria Burke / AP)
Samantha Shorris
Samantha Shorris is a rising senior at Lehigh University studying psychology, global studies and Arabic. After studying abroad in Morocco, she became...
Samantha Shorris

The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has a complex history dating to the Vietnam War. In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave approval for the expansion of the war, leading to its escalation by President Lyndon Johnson. It allowed Johnson to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Thus began the eight-year conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 58,000 U.S. troops.

After the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which allowed the president to send military forces in a case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces” (50 U.S. Code 1541). However, the resolution prohibits armed forces from remaining deployed for more than 60 days unless Congress has passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force.

The 2001 AUMF was passed just days after the 9/11 attacks as a way to sanction military force in Afghanistan. Consisting of only 60 words, the resolution’s language allows for vague and malleable application. It states “… the President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Similar to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the 2001 AUMF is extremely ambiguous, providing no geographic limits or time constraints for the utilization of military force. This lack of specificity has allowed three successive presidents to use it as justification for more than 30 authorized deployments in the past 16 years.

Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California was the only member of Congress to vote against the bill, resulting in a 420 to 1 outcome. She warned her fellow congressional members that it could potentially spiral out of control. Sixteen years later, they are finally beginning to recognize her point.

Over the years, numerous measures to repeal the overly broad 2001 AUMF have been proposed, but all have been rejected. But on June 29, the House Committee on Appropriations passed Lee’s amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF, which would end the authorization for military force within 240 days of enactment of the fiscal year 2018 Defense Appropriations Bill. After the repeal measure passed, opposing members stripped the provision in July. On Twitter, Lee blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan for the rejection of her amendment. She wrote, “Ryan should be ashamed of himself for forcing Republicans to strip out my bipartisan AUMF (amendment) in the dead of night. What was he afraid of?”

Lee is used to rejection, however—her pitch has been nixed five times since 2010. Her sixth attempt made more progress than the previous five, showing great hope for eventual repeal of the 2001 AUMF. Although her June attempt was not a success, it is a step in a positive direction. “This is a marathon,” she noted. “The way Congress works is very slow … but I’m going to keep plugging along.” Support for repeal is still widely embraced by both Democrat and Republican senators and representatives.

Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern is also a longtime opponent of the 2001 AUMF. “We are operating off an obsolete AUMF,” he said. “We owe it to the men and women who are serving [in Afghanistan] to at least debate whether what we’re doing there makes sense.” McGovern worries that Congress, by failing to repeal the authorization, is not living up to its constitutional responsibility. He points out that Congress is fearful on this issue because of the nature of the president and his administration. “Shame on us all for allowing this to continue,” he later said.

Sen. Rand Paul is one of many Republican members of Congress to support repeal of the 2001 AUMF. Paul said, “These original authorizations were passed back when some of the men and women fighting in our current conflicts were still small children. No president—including this president—deserves this kind of extra-constitutional power.” He explained that a new authorization would give Congress the opportunity to fight for new congressional authority. Paul drew attention to the legality of basing current wars on the 2001 AUMF by clarifying that “there’s supposed to be no war without an AUMF. We have been illegally at war for a long time now.”

In addition to members of Congress, both past and current members of the military have supported repeal of the obsolete AUMF. Republican Chris Stewart, who served in the Air Force, observed that military personnel “notice that we don’t have the courage to debate this.” Scott Taylor, a Republican and former Navy SEAL, said, “I think we’ve seen a disproportionate sacrifice with the military community that has gone [on] over and over again … and I believe that we owe them a debate.”

This is not a one-sided partisan issue, but rather an issue about what is constitutionally right. The purpose of Lee’s amendment is not to prevent all war or to take away the military’s ability to defend our country. The goal of the repeal is to ensure that if we are to be at war, it is supported by the people’s representatives in Congress in the form of a new AUMF. This would ensure that the nation debates war and peace issues, giving voice back to the people after 16 years of being overpowered.

The 2018 Defense Authorization Bill is pending in the Senate. Will that body have the courage to amend it using language similar to Lee’s?

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