The War Powers Act: A reassertion of power or partisan instrument?

During my sophomore year, I took a course focused on the role of the President in politics. As part of our curriculum, we learned about the increase in partisanship that the United States has seen in recent decades and how it has impacted the President’s ability to take what he feels is the best course of action in a given situation. My research will focus on the War Powers Resolution, a piece of legislation that was arguably passed, and is oftentimes enforced today, as a partisan instrument.

When the War Powers Act was passed in 1973, Congress was controlled by the Democratic Party. By that time, the Vietnam War had become unpopular and constituents, both Democrat and Republican, were looking to their Congressional representatives to help bring it to a close. The Watergate scandal was fresh in the minds of the American people as they called for Congress to put a limit on presidential power. It is in the midst of this anti-war, anti-Nixon sentiment that the War Powers Resolution has its origins.

Some background on the provisions of the act: It requires the President to notify Congress 48 hours before sending American troops into military hostilities or areas where “hostilities might be imminent,” but asks that the President consult with Congress before doing so in “every possible instance.” The act explains that the President can only stay engaged in military hostilities for 60 to 90 days unless Congress 1) declares war 2) extends the 60 to 90 day period 3) is unable to meet because the United States is under attack.

Although the passage of the act was seen by some as Congress’ attempt to reassert their power to declare war, the only time that Congress has positively asserted this power over the President is during President Reagan’s mission in Lebanon in 1983. In every other instance, the President has mentioned the War Powers Act and spoken with select members of Congress about his decision to employ the U.S military, but he has not actively complied or been made to comply with the provisions outlined in the War Powers Resolution. Alternatively, members of Congress have often used the War Powers Resolution as a way to combat the efforts of a President in the party opposite theirs. For example, during Obama’s recent mission in Libya, there was talk amongst many members of Congress about whether or not to enforce the War Powers Act—an act that many of them may have ignored if the President had been a member of their own party.

I look forward to discussing this issue with my peers and examining hearings, roll call votes, and debates in an effort to better understand the origins and practical impact that this act has had on the President’s authority and Congress’ ability to assert the power that is constitutionally theirs.

Looking forward to the fall conference!


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