Rethinking War Powers: Options for Reestablishing Congressional Authority over US Foreign Policy (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Alyssa Kann, Fall 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow

American military actions—most not subject to public scrutiny or congressional accountability—have occurred in at least 20 countries in 20 years. These military operations have been made possible through increasingly broad presidential war powers, despite the fact that the Constitution reserved most war powers for Congress. In addition to over half a million lives lost in these military operations and trillions spent, this executive encroachment on war powers has eroded governmental accountability, civil rights, democratic institutions, and the role of the public and Congress in war making.

This executive overreach in military affairs has occurred in a variety of ways, particularly through Congress’ passage of the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Yet many scholars have described a broader trend in the past several decades of increasing executive power in military affairs, such as presidents justifying unilateral operations through their inherent authorities as president and through international organizations.

Given the existing damages done and the threat of future blunders, it is critical to put more limits on presidential military power. The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs should be repealed. Bills such as the Senate’s National Security Powers Act or the House’s National Security Reforms and Accountability Act should be passed. These bills define key terms, shorten the presidential ability to have hostilities unauthorized by Congress from sixty to twenty days, automatically cut funding off when the president conducts military operations without congressional approval, and mandate that future AUMFs are more specifically defined. These policy items would be good first steps in helping to better prevent future unilateral presidential military actions and restore congressional oversight to war making.