Congress’ Role In Syria Strikes Remains In Question


house chamber

CREDIT: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

As the United States reportedly prepares to launch a limited series of punitive strikes against Syria for the use of chemical weapons, the debate seems less focused over whether they’ll occur but when and under what legal authority President Obama will act.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Tuesday that he would be recalling Parliament to debate and vote on what action to take in Syria, leaving many wondering if Obama will do the same with Congress here in the United States. Congress is currently enjoying its August recess, which is scheduled to last until Sept. 7, long after the reported Thursday start date for strikes. Under Art. II, Sec. 3 of the Constitution, the President does have the ability to convene joint sessions of Congress, which would recall the 538 legislators back to Washington.

So far the White House has given no indication that such a step is on their agenda, though they haven’t held Congress completely incommunicado. Key Congressional committee members — including Speaker of the House John Boehner and members of the House and Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees — have acknowledged that they’ve received phone calls to be briefed on the situation. Congressional leaders could pull the trigger on cutting the recess short even if the White House doesn’t request it, as Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) took to Twitter on Thursday to urge. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office was currently unaware of any plans to recall the Senate into session to debate Syria when ThinkProgress reached out.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on Tuesday that he does still wish that Obama would call his colleagues back from their August recess early to debate how to handle the crisis, though acknowledging it’s unlikely. “I do hope once the president decides which option he’s going to take relative to our intervention, I do hope they will circle back around and talk with those of us that i think they feel they need to talk with regarding this,” Corker said. “But look, it’s going to happen in my opinion. It’s a matter of what option the president takes.”

The lack of Congress in the nation’s capitol is causing the Obama administration to search for a domestic legal argument that would justify their use of force. At present, there’s currently no legislation in place that would explicitly allow for strikes against the Syrian regime. Instead, all funding and authorizations for programs meant to aid the Syrian rebels, such as providing training and support within Jordan’s borders, have come with the condition that that it not be read as clearing the way for using force. At present, however, the only new legislation that would totally block funding to any unauthorized Syria operation has only 13 co-sponsors, including some of the most conservative members of Congress.

At present, the likelihood of Congress exercising its Constitutional prerogative and declaring war on Syria remains slim, given that no full declaration has passed since war was levied on Germany in 1941. Instead, Congress has since then relied on Authorization for the Use of Military Force, as seen in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq War. There are currently no draft versions of an AUMF that have been introduced in either the House or Senate regarding Syria.

With no AUMF, 1973’s War Powers Resolution — passed with the intention of Congress reining in the ever-expansive authority the Executive Branch had gathered regarding launching conflicts — becomes central to the debate. Under the provisions of the law, the President has to notify Congress whenever placing forces in areas where “imminent” hostilities are likely, and given a sixty-day window to conduct the operation absent Congressional approval and another thirty-days allotted towards withdrawal. The calls currently being placed to the Hill, along with the extremely short length of operations officials are quoting, would potentially keep any Syria operation within the confines of the WPR.

While the Obama administration has — for the most part — complied with many of the provisions of the War Powers Resolution, it has not outright accepted the constitutionality of the statute, joining every administration since Richard Nixon’s. The WPR, the argument goes, serves as an illegal check on the President’s constitutional responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief and therefore is easily ignored.

And despite being passed over Nixon’s veto, the War Powers Resolution has never been successfully employed to end a military mission. The Judicial Branch has also rejected Congressional attempts to take the Executive Branch to court over violations, ruling that the Legislative Branch lacks standing given their ability to pass laws constraining the President further.