If the War Powers Act becomes moot, don’t blame Barack Obama, say the editors of the Chicago Tribune today. In order to curtail abuses of power from the executive, the legislature not only has to pass laws but also enforce them. And thus far, they’re not impressed with the Washington Way in Chi-town:
Obama is on the horns of a dilemma. As a candidate, he said the president does not have the power to go to war on his own except in cases of actual or likely attack. But if he were to ask Congress to authorize the Libyan intervention, he would probably be rebuffed. So he’s chosen to simply ignore the law.
But ignoring laws is not what presidents promise to do when they are sworn in. Unless Obama wants to make the case that it’s unconstitutional, as some experts think, he should act (belatedly) to follow it or explain why the Libya operations don’t qualify. The latter would be a stretch, but maybe Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to elaborate on his theory that Libya is merely a “limited kinetic action,” not a war.
Still, the fault here is not all Obama’s. He has reason to think a president can get away with taking unilateral military action, since Congress is usually reluctant to object. It’s easier for lawmakers to carp than to take action that involves shouldering responsibility for the ensuing outcome.
Congress has another problem that the Tribune doesn’t address, which is the law itself. Neither the executive nor legislative branches have been especially eager to test the constitutionality of the WPA in the courts. Congress has mainly found it best to pretend that it’s constitutional but not push the notion, and Presidents to pretend it isn’t and not push the notion. It’s similar to the approach taken by both on executive privilege, and for the same reason — neither wants a precedent set. It allows for much more flexibility in negotiations.
Obama’s action threatens to upset this balance, but only if Congress decides to hold Obama accountable under the law. It’s ironic, of course, that the first legal challenge to the WPA may come as a result of a Democratic President’s intransigence on seeking Congressional approval for a military adventure after the same man criticized his predecessor for adventurism that had Congressional approval, but that’s the Chicago Way. The Tribune would like to see Congress take a page from Obama’s playbook and hold him accountable. We’ll see whether Harry Reid thinks that’s as difficult as producing a budget.