As Washington swirls with proposals, counter-proposals, and political brinksmanship in response to diplomatic efforts on Syria, the situation has a lot of people scratching their heads. Couldn’t President Obama and Congress have handled this differently?
I prefer to take a step back and ask a different question. Given that we are stronger as a country and our foreign policy more effective when the President and Congress forge a unified response to an international crisis, how can the two branches of government work together less chaotically to confront a dilemma like this one?
Let’s put a possible congressional vote on Syria in context. Washington has long been divided over the power to use American military force, thanks to ambiguity in the Constitution itself: it gives Congress the power to declare war, but makes the President commander-in-chief. The last time Congress formally used its war powers was during World War II. It has ceded authority to the President ever since.
So I’m encouraged to see the possibility of real congressional debate on Syria, on what to do when another country uses chemical weapons, and on the projection of U.S. power. Presidents should not get a free pass on foreign affairs, but neither should Congress get to avoid declaring itself. On such difficult issues in the past, Congress has preferred to sidestep its constitutional responsibility, defer to the President, and then snipe from the sidelines when things go wrong.
This time, for better or worse, is different. What I hope we don’t see is a chaotic process that leaves the U.S. appearing divided and indecisive, with the President forced to wonder how to “consult” with a disorganized Congress in which power is diffused. There is a better way, but it requires a regular mechanism for consultation. A few years ago, a bipartisan National War Powers Commission, of which I was a member, came up with a pragmatic framework that would create a routine process for the President and Congress to follow.
Had this structure been in place already, a high-stakes vote on Syria wouldn’t seem so unusual and the consultative process would have been far less messy. My hope, once this is over, is that the idea will gain greater currency. When international crises arrive, a routine process that has allowed our political leaders to build credibility with each other would save them a lot of heartburn.
— Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.