Tuesday, June 28, 2011
A Primer on the War Powers Act; Why It is a Difficult Tight Rope for President Obama to Walk
The War Powers Act was passed by Congress in 1973 over the veto of President Richard Nixon. The WPA is an attempt by Congress to define the line between the President's powers as commander-in-chief and Congress' power to declare war. The WPA says the President may commit troops in the event of a 1) declaration of war by congress; 2) a statute authorizing the President to commit troops; or 3) a national emergency created by an attack on the United States or the U.S. armed forces.
In the event #3 applies, the President can commit troops for 60 days and can get an additional 30 days if it is declared by the president as a continuing national emergency.
Until President Obama, every President since 1973, all Republican and Democrats, since have taken the position that the WPA is an unconstitutional infringement on the President's power as commander-in-chief and has refused to follow it. What often happens is that the President will commit troops and then Congress will after-the-fact pass legislation authorizing what the President has done. It's more a way Congress has of trying to save face, a way of claiming the WPA is still valid as law.
Obama is the first President who served in Congress post-WPA. In the Senate he took a position that the WPA is constitutional. Now as President he can't take the position the traditional position that the WPA is unconstitutional. Instead President Obama, boxed in a corner because of his previous support of the WPA, has chosen to take the position that what is happening in Libya is not actually "hostilities," an undefined term in the WPA. He has boxed himself into an intellectual corner.