In a surprise move, the House panel that sets defense spending declared that lawmakers must debate whether to allow President Obama to use military force against the terrorist group.
When the House Appropriations Committee passed the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 spending bill on Tuesday, it included an unexpected amendment: a statement declaring that Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and decide whether or not to authorize military force against the Islamic State group.
“Congress finds that 1) the United States has been engaged in military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for more than 8 months; 2) President Obama submitted an authorization for the use of military force against ISIL in February 2015; and 3) under article 1, section 8 of the Constitution, Congress has the authority to ‘declare war’,” the amendment states. “Therefore, Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force against ISIL.”
Lawmakers seemed as surprised as anyone when the amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., passed 29-22, with a number of Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues. Two related amendments from Lee had just failed soundly.
“It’s way past time to reassert Congress’s role in war making,” Lee said of her successful amendment. “We can’t allow this war to go on without a full and robust debate on the authorization on the use of military force against ISIL. We can’t allow this policy of endless war to continue. A debate, doing our job, that’s all.”
Lee was the sole lawmaker to vote against the sweeping AUMF passed shortly after 9/11 that continues to serve as the legal foundation for U.S. counterterrorism operations across the globe. In 2002, Congress also passed an AUMF allowing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. Neither has a sunset date.
The Obama administration, which has called upon Congress to variously refine and repeal the 2001 and 2002 laws, now says both authorize its military actions against the Islamic State.
Several times in the past decade, Lee has introduced legislation to repeal both Bush-era AUMFs. On Tuesday, Republicans knocked down her latest attempts, voting 19-32 to dismiss her proposed amendments. Several expressed unease at repealing war powers the president says he needs, while others charged Lee of simply trying to make electoral hay. “With respect, this amendment only has one purpose: again to make a political statement on our government’s actions in Iraq,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
But Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., responded, “For eight months now, the U.S. has been conducting military operations in Iraq and Syria … All of this has accrued without Congress authorizing a new AUMF. It is not politics, it is policy.”
And by passing the third amendment — though it would add only a non-binding "consent of Congress” — lawmakers from both parties acknowledged they have a constitutional obligation to debate an AUMF against the Islamic State, even if the war did start more than eight months ago.
“I don’t agree with removing authorizations without a replacement already there … but I think the gentlelady’s point is absolutely correct,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said, noting he’d prefer a stronger AUMF than the draft the White House sent over in February. “We are not only evading the responsibility, on both sides of the aisle ... but we are handing over executive war-making authority to this president and all future presidents with both hands. It is a gigantic mistake not to do our jobs.”
But outside the bipartisan vote in the House Appropriations committee, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, recently called on Obama to scrap his draft and send a stronger one.
To which White House spokesman Josh Earnest replied, with obvious frustration, “He’s the Speaker of the House and he’s blaming the President for something not moving through Congress … Congress has been AWOL when it comes to the AUMF.”
Though the Tuesday passage was surprising, the amendment will still have to survive the full House consideration of the fiscal 2016 defense appropriations bill.