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Holding the Government Accountable

Congress is Afraid to be Responsible for Our Current Wars

Soldiers quickly march to the ramp of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter that will return them to Kandahar ARmy Air Field on Sept. 4, 2003. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis

In the next few weeks Congress will debate and approve legislation to authorize and appropriate over $1 trillion in national security spending. That debate should include authorization for our current wars. But yet again leadership proved its cowardice when it comes to its constitutional responsibility to declare wars, and to be held accountable for those wars, by using a procedural trick to block an up-or-down vote to authorize them.

Last month Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) offered an amendment to the House Appropriations bill to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—referred to as the AUMF. The amendment would have repealed the 2001 AUMF 240 days after the appropriations bill went into effect, which Lee hoped would force Congress to vote on a new AUMF to reflect our current wars.

The 2001 AUMF authorized the use of force in response to the September 11 attacks, but has since been twisted to cover a number of conflicts that have little to no connection to those attacks. The Congressional Research Service found that the AUMF has been used to allow deploying and directing forces, or to engage in other actions, in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia. Lee, along with Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) and 53 other colleagues in the House, and Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) in the Senate, have spent years trying to get Congress to vote on a new AUMF to reflect our current commitments without success.

The Lee amendment was a brief moment of progress, surprisingly passing in the committee on a bipartisan vote. Representatives Chris Stewart (R-UT) and Scott Taylor (R-VA), both military veterans themselves, criticized Congress’s inaction on debating and approving a new AUMF. But that progress has been halted for now by the House Rules committee—which proudly touts itself as the “Speaker’s Committee” because it’s the Speaker’s way of controlling the House Floor—which stripped the language from the bill in the dead of night before it could get to the Floor for a vote. The Rules Committee replaced it with language Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) had added to a different defense authorization bill; that language required a report and budgetary analysis from the President on how to defeat Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State, including an analysis of whether the current AUMF is sufficient to accomplish that strategy. While this language is an important step forward, it stops far short of Congress actually doing its job and voting—and thus being accountable—for our current wars. Cole himself supported the language offered by Lee.

...yet again leadership proved its cowardice when it comes to its constitutional responsibility to declare wars...

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told Real Clear Politics it was “a mistake” that the amendment had passed and that an appropriations bill was the wrong vehicle for debating the issue. But it appears there’s never going to be a right vehicle. The Speaker and his Republican and Democratic predecessors, through the Rules committee, have repeatedly blocked votes on this issue on defense authorization bills—a pretty natural vehicle for the debate. They have not allowed standalone legislation to be considered, either.

Congress is truly broken if they think they can absolve themselves of responsibility for our war efforts. Large Pentagon budgets don’t show support for the troops so much as they do for defense contractors and campaign donors. Real support for our troops would be Congress giving serious consideration to where and why we send our men and women into harm’s way, and then having the guts to vote for it on the record.