The Constitution contains a few ambiguities. Perhaps the most challenging is that it gives Congress the duty to declare war, but it makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces.
Congress has not declared war since 1941, and yet the nation has engaged in several of them. President Harry S. Truman committed troops to the Korean conflict without much congressional consultation other than asking for money, but Lyndon Johnson got a congressional resolution to support his decision to escalate in Vietnam, and subsequent presidents, including George W. Bush, have relied on similar strategies to justify armed conflicts.
Now, former secretaries of state James Baker and Warren Christopher have proposed an idea they feel will protect the nation from conflicts that ignore the role of Congress.
Besides being a non-starter (the current Congress isn't going to pass it and the president wouldn't sign it), this idea would provide nothing to Congress that it doesn't already have. It would not give Congress what it really needs a spine to take responsibility for its actions.
Baker and Christopher want to replace the War Powers Act, a law passed in the aftermath of Vietnam. That act is probably unconstitutional and, in any case, has been virtually ignored by presidents.
Their new plan would require the president to consult with a joint congressional committee before beginning an armed conflict expected to last longer than a week. Congress then would have 30 days in which to vote to approve the conflict. If the vote fails, Congress would have five days to vote for a disapproval resolution, which the president could veto. Congress then could override the veto or, if all else fails, vote to cut funding for the war.
In other words, the plan would change nothing.
The intent of the Founding Fathers was to make it difficult for the nation to engage in war without the consent of the governed. Despite how many lawmakers today are upset about an unpopular war, President Bush did not attack Iraq without consulting Congress. In fact, the resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein passed overwhelmingly. Congress, to this day, has the option of cutting off funds for the war, but its members have not done so.
It is true that war-making has become far too political. Perhaps the new plan's provision to establish a bipartisan committee with access to intelligence would help remove some of the politics, especially as wars drone on and become unpopular. But we doubt it.
The Baker-Christopher plan gives short-shrift to the notion of the president as commander in chief. In today's dangerous world, that's a concept that needs to be preserved. Congress already has the power to check abuses.