WASHINGTON — Ten months into the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, Congress still has neither debated it nor voted to authorize it.
But on Tuesday, a House committee decided to do something about that: It passed a measure saying Congress should do something about that.
Think of it as baby steps.
During a House Appropriations Committee hearing, lawmakers added language to the 2016 defense spending bill stating that “Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force” against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
The amendment, offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), has no binding effect. It does nothing to force a congressional debate on the duration, costs or endgame of the war. It simply states that it is Congress’ responsibility to have that debate and then vote to authorize, or not to authorize, war.
In other words, it reminds Congress what its job is.
“We must recognize that Congress has an important role to play in matters of war and peace. It’s way past time to reassert Congress’ role in war-making,” said Lee. “We can’t allow this policy of endless war to continue. This amendment just says Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether to use military force against ISIL. A debate. Doing our job. That’s all this amendment requires.”
Lee’s amendment passed 29-22. Its passage seemed to surprise the committee chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who initially held a voice vote and said the amendment failed. Lee requested a record vote afterward and it passed.
President Barack Obama has been directing airstrikes against ISIS since August, and he’s been doing so without new congressional authorization. The Constitution requires Congress to declare wars, but in this case, Obama said he doesn’t need lawmakers’ sign-off because a sweeping 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force covers his actions. Lawmakers have disputed that point for months, so the president sent them a new, Islamic State-specific AUMF proposal in February, saying he welcomed a vote on it, even though he doesn’t think he needs it.
Nothing has happened since.
Democrats say Obama’s proposal is too broad, Republicans say it’s too restrictive, and their differences have given way to complacency. That leaves the U.S. engaged in a military campaign with no end in sight. The U.S. has already spent more than $2.1 billion, participated in more than 4,000 airstrikes and sent 3,000 military personnel to Iraq in the effort.
The reality is that many lawmakers don’t want anything to do with a war authorization vote, for fear that if something goes wrong, their fingerprints will be on it. A handful of Democrats have been pushing for a debate and a vote, but neither GOP nor Democratic Party leaders are doing anything to make the issue a priority.
Tuesday’s committee vote at least showed there is bipartisan support in the House for debating and voting on war authorization — something House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has signaled isn’t going to happen on his watch.
The 29 members who voted for Lee’s amendment were Reps. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Jaime Herrera-Beutler (R-Wash.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), David Jolly (R-Fla.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), David Price (D-N.C.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Scott Rigell (R-Va.), Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), David Young (R-Iowa) and Lee.
Cole, a close ally to Boehner, said he thinks Lee is “absolutely correct” that Congress has an obligation to debate and vote on war.
“We are not only evading this responsibility on both sides of the aisle, quite frankly … but we are handing over war-making authority to the executive branch, to all future presidents, with both hands. It is a gigantic mistake not to do our job,” said Cole.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) was among those who opposed Lee’s amendment. He called it “totally inappropriate” to tie a war authorization measure — even one that just states the role of Congress — to the defense spending bill.
“Respectfully, this amendment has only one purpose: to make a political statement on our government’s actions in Iraq,” Frelinghuysen said. “It has no place in our bill.”
Besides Frelinghuysen, other lawmakers who voted against stating that it is Congress’ responsibility to authorize war included GOP Reps. Robert Aderholt (Ala.), Mark Amodei (Nev.), Ken Calvert (Calif.), John Carter (Texas), Ander Crenshaw (Fla.), John Culberson (Texas), Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Chuck Fleischmann (Tenn.), Kay Granger (Texas), Tom Graves (Ga.), Andy Harris (Md.), Evan Jenkins (W.Va.), David Joyce (Ohio), Steven Palazzo (Miss.), Martha Roby (Ala.), Michael Simpson (Idaho), Chris Stewart (Utah), David Valadao (Calif.), Steve Womack (Ark.) and Kevin Yoder (Kansas).
Rogers also voted against the amendment.
It’s unclear if the language will stay in the bill once it hits the House floor.
Lee offered two other amendments that were rejected. One would have repealed the 2001 AUMF, with a cushion of eight months for Congress to pass a new, ISIS-specific AUMF in its place. The other would have repealed the 2002 AUMF that authorized the Iraq War. Neither of those AUMFs have an expiration date, and Obama has leaned on both as his legal justification for taking military action against ISIS on his own.
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