Some say that America has an imperial presidency, but any imbalance of power in the federal government seems to be as much the fault of a meek Congress as any executive overreach.
Much has been said about the anger in Congress over the fact that President Obama brought the U.S. into the Libyan civil war without congressional approval. That Obama fell short of even the resolution authorizing the use of force obtained by George W. Bush prior to the Iraq war was such a jarring event that even normally timid congressmen felt obliged to bark a bit.
It didn’t help that the current vice president had called unauthorized military adventuring an impeachable offense and that as a candidate, Obama had plainly stipulated that the president lacked the constitutional authority to launch an attack without prior approval.
There has been plenty of bipartisan baying about Obama’s circumvention, and there are some Democrats who seem genuinely concerned to have been blown off by the president when it comes to making war.
But most Democrats seem to have already rationalized their way out of confronting the president.
The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, fired off a letter to the president demanding answers about the Libya war and suggesting that the administration may have violated the War Powers Act that gives the president the power to act without congressional approval in the event of an imminent attack on the United States.
Presidents, predictably, have stretched and strained this 1973 law into pretzel twists to rationalize military operations. It was passed by Congress after presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon prosecuted a war in Vietnam for a decade without any declaration from Congress.
But rather than a check on executive power, the War Powers Act has instead been a way for presidents to explain why they used force without getting congressional approval. Of the 18 enumerated powers granted to Congress in the Constitution, the big two are the power to tax and the power to make war.
But six days after the U.S. entry into the war, Larson was on C-SPAN praising Obama’s foresight and attention to international coalition building and making plain that he supported the war. The problem, he said, was just a lack of communication.
“There was a lack of information, but I think that the president is rectifying that,” Larson said. “There is going to be a briefing that is going to take place on Wednesday…”
So, the congressman’s position is that the president can make good on his obligations to share power with Congress by holding an informational session nearly two weeks after committing forces into a North African civil war.
The real message from Larson, who in 2007 suggested that Bush was turning the U.S. into “an empire,” not a republic, with his attack on Iraq, is that it is OK for presidents to ignore Congress on fighting wars as long as the wars are good ones.
It is not surprising that Democrats have rallied to the flag of their embattled president. With low public approval for U.S. entry into the war and deep questions about the means and ends of American involvement, Larson and other Democrats feel obliged not to make Obama’s situation worse.
But the fact that Republicans have reacted with calm concern instead of outrage at the presidential end-around suggests that there are more than just partisan forces at work.
Obama’s only publicly articulated argument for why the Libya war is a matter of U.S. concern is that it is in the U.S. interest for dictators to be prevented from abusing their population and that tyrants of the Middle East feel obliged to follow some “basic rules of the road” when governing their subjects.
If the U.S. is getting into the global dictator remediation business there are about 20 other countries that might qualify for some “kinetic military action.” Bush had argued that the invasion of Iraq was to suppress an imminent threat in the form of weapons of mass destruction. That turned out not to be the case, but there was at least the argument of an imminent threat. Obama has staked out a brand new standard for military action without consultation or approval from Congress or even an address to the American people to explain himself.
This has prompted a stern but supportive letter from Speaker John Boehner and some public grumblings from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a request for hearings on the subject. There are many in the Republican caucuses who are incensed at what they see as executive effrontery, but there seems to be only a limited appetite for a constitutional showdown over the war.
Congressional Republicans have been squeamish about trying to back the president down on spending and borrowing for fear that a government shutdown means political oblivion for the GOP. Trying to push back on a president over a shooting war must seem like an even more unappealing option.
The Founding Fathers designed for the branches of government to be competitors for authority that would jealously guard their own powers and resist the attempted expansions of the others. But Washington’s primary division long ago became the one between the political parties, not the branches.
George Washington wrote that he understood the Constitution to mean that as president he could begin “no offensive expedition of importance” without congressional authorization.
If Congress now accepts the idea that a president can make war without its approval even when there is no imminent threat to America, it would seem that the long struggle envisioned by the Founders is at an end.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he serves as the host of "Power Play" on FoxNews.com and makes daily appearances on the network including "America Live with Megyn Kelly," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." Most recently, Stirewalt provided expert political analysis during the 2012 presidential election.