Congress and War

How the House and the Senate Can Reclaim Their Role

A tourist stands in front of the U.S. Capitol, January 2010. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

It is easy to conclude that the U.S. Congress is simply incapable of playing a constructive role in matters of war and peace. Paralyzed by gridlock, the hyperpartisan body regularly betrays its constitutional responsibility to act as a serious check on the executive branch, often preferring instead to launch ideological crusades aimed at scoring political points. Congress has spent thousands of hours on deeply partisan investigations of the murders of four U.S. officials and contractors in Benghazi, Libya, but refrained from making any decision on the military intervention that brought them to that chaotic city in the first place. Although the Obama administration began arming and training rebels in Syria over three years ago, neither chamber of Congress has held a debate over the U.S. policy in the civil war there. And two years after the administration started sending U.S. forces into Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State, or ISIS, Congress hasn’t bothered to hold a vote on whether to authorize the use of force for the campaign.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and indeed, it wasn’t always. Most recently, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, Congress weighed in responsibly on conflicts in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, and southern Africa. Sometimes, it blocked arguably misguided action on the part of the executive branch, while at other times, it partnered with it to improve outcomes. The congressional foreign affairs committees took steps to develop independent perspectives on U.S. policy, and party leaders assembled political coalitions to process clear, binding legislation on the use of force. When Congress encountered large, formally covert CIA paramilitary operations, it subjected them to the same open debate and legislative supervision as other war policies.

All these tools remain available today. The arrival of President Donald Trump could revive Congress’ political will to use them. Trump lacks diplomatic experience, possesses ill-defined views on military intervention, and confronts a public disillusioned with

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