It’s going on six months since President Obama launched a military offensive against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, and to date, Congress still hasn’t lifted a finger to authorize the mission. At a press conference yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested it’s the White House’s fault lawmakers haven’t done anything.
“We’ve also yet to see an authorization for the use of military force to defeat our terrorist enemies from this White House. I’ve continued to remind the president that historically, the commander in chief has identified the need for the use of military force, written a new authorization for that force, sent it to the Hill, and typically also worked to build bipartisan support for such a resolution.“Once again, I would urge him to do so. If he does, Republicans will be ready to work with him to get it approved.”
When a reporter asked about the congressional timeline on an authorization to use force, Boehner said he “would hope that the White House will move quickly.” And if administration officials don’t move quickly? “We’ll see,” the Speaker added.
If this seems familiar, there’s a good reason – we’ve been stuck in this strange holding pattern for quite a while. Obama has welcomed congressional authorization and urged lawmakers to get to work. Boehner has expressed support for the mission against ISIS, but he wants the president to do Congress’ job, write the text of the resolution, and lobby for its passage.
The airstrikes continue, and Congress’ constitutional obligations haven’t changed, but nothing actually happens in terms of authorizing the airstrikes that began last summer.
But do Boehner’s complaints have merit? It’s worth pausing to take a closer look.
In theory, the Speaker and his members could have interrupted their summer break last year to address the ISIS crisis in the Middle East, but that didn’t happen. Soon after, Congress also could have interrupted its 54-day pre-election break to work on this, but that didn’t happen, either. Lawmakers then had an opportunity to authorize the ongoing military operations during their lame-duck session, but Republican leaders didn’t want to.
Which brings us to the new year and Boehner’s expectation that the White House will write a resolution for Congress to consider. As we discussed the last time the argument came up, it’s a deeply odd pitch: Congress will meet its obligations, but it’s up to Obama to get the ball rolling.
It’s a convenient rhetorical line: Boehner has apparently found a way to blame the president for Congress not getting its homework done.
There is a degree of irony to this. For years, the Speaker and many in his party have complained bitterly that Obama fails to treat Congress like a co-equal branch of government, and now these same people are saying it’s up to the executive branch to write legislative language for the legislative branch. Sure, lawmakers could do this for themselves, but Boehner apparently prefers to wait impatiently.
What’s more, as we talked about in September, the notion that lawmakers should do no work until the president sends over instructions, because this is “typically” how the process works, is itself dubious.
When President Clinton used military force in Kosovo, for example, congressional Republicans voted on a resolution that they, not the White House, wrote. The same is true when President Obama launched strikes in Libya. In fairness, these were not measures authorizing force, per se, but they were lawmakers weighing in on the scope of a U.S. military operation by voting on a resolution lawmakers authored.
What’s more, when President Reagan deployed U.S. troops to Lebanon, the White House accepted a congressional resolution, but it came from lawmakers, not the West Wing.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said about Congress’ duties, “We’re not a suitor that has to wait to be asked to dance.” That’s exactly right. Even if lawmakers “typically” waited for a president to tell them what to do, that’s not how the American system is supposed to work, and upon further inspection, that’s not exactly how the process has “typically” worked, anyway.