It was 15 months ago this week that President Obama launched a military offensive against ISIS targets in the Middle East. It was 11 months ago that the president called on Congress to authorize the mission. It was eight months ago that the White House, at Congress’ insistence, sent draft legislative language to Capitol Hill to encourage lawmakers to do their jobs.
So far, however, neither the Republican-led House nor the Republican-led Senate have done any work on the issue. To their credit, there are some members who believe it’s time for lawmakers to take their responsibilities seriously, as the Washington Post reported:
A bipartisan group of 35 House lawmakers is pressing new House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to move forward with a long-stalled effort to provide the White House with specific authority to fight the wars in Iraq and Syria. […]“Americans are worried about the track we’re on,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), one of the lead authors of the letter that went to Ryan.
One of the striking things about the letter is the ideological diversity of its signers. One might expect a letter co-authored by a Massachusetts Democrat to have limited appeal to GOP members, but those assumptions in this case are wrong: half of the document’s endorsements came from Republicans, ranging from the center-right (Oklahoma’s Tom Cole) to the Freedom Caucus (South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney) to the libertarian wing of the party (Michigan’s Justin Amash).
So why doesn’t Congress simply do what it’s supposed to do? This is a policy dynamic with several moving parts, but there are basically two angles to keep in mind.
The first is the fact that there’s a sincere policy dispute between the left and right. Democrats believe any AUMF resolution endorsing the mission must include some constraints on the scope and breadth of the military offensive. That means timelines, restrictions on ground forces, geographic limits, etc. Republicans, meanwhile, want the opposite: a resolution that effectively empowers the administration – and its successor – to go as far as it feels necessary, for as long as the president wants.
If you’re thinking it’s ironic that GOP lawmakers want to hand President Obama a blank check to pursue an expansive policy however he sees fit, you’re not alone.
The second problem is that many congressional Republicans don’t much care about whether the mission is authorized or not. The Washington Post published this unexpected quote last week:
“I basically agree with people that the current AUMF that the president’s justifying his actions under, I would argue it doesn’t apply,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But it’s being applied, and I’m not going to challenge it because we have to achieve that goal.”
Think about that sentiment for a minute. Ron Johnson believes the president doesn’t have the legal authority to wage this fight against ISIS, but he supports the mission, which leads him to believe legal authority just isn’t particularly important.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, added, “Unless we can be very clear on what Congress would want the president to have as parameters, which is the flexibility to take the fight wherever the president thinks is appropriate, then I think we stay with the current [AUMF]. And the lawyers can have the discussion about the legality of it.”
It was a little easier to take “constitutional conservatives” seriously when they at least pretended to take a conservative approach to the Constitution.