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Putting checks and balances to the test

When considering Congress' role in foreign policy and national security, it's sometimes difficult to separate the principles from the contextual details. This
Putting checks and balances to the test
Putting checks and balances to the test

When considering Congress' role in foreign policy and national security, it's sometimes difficult to separate the principles from the contextual details. This week, if you support U.S. intervention in Syria, it may tempting to argue that lawmakers should get out of the way, as they have done many times before. If you oppose intervention, you're likely to argue the opposite.

If you support President Obama, it's easy to believe he's a capable Commander in Chief who deserves the benefit of the doubt. If you disapprove of Obama's presidency, you're inclined to believe the opposite.

But I'd argue that while the details certainly matter, at its root, the underlying question here has less to do with this president and this mission, and more to do with a basic test of governmental checks and balances. If the United States is going to use military force abroad, does Congress play a role in the decision making? Should it?

A fairly large group of House members believes the president can use force, but should receive congressional authorization first.

As we reported Tuesday, the letter penned by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., pushes the president to "receive authorization from Congress before ordering the use of U.S. military force in Syria."While the letter lacks signatures from top leaders -- Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote his own letter to Obama Wednesday afternoon -- it now has 98 Republican and 18 Democratic supporters.

The letter with the 116 signatures was sent to the White House yesterday afternoon. The total number of members endorsing the letter grew fairly quickly, though it's worth noting that 116 is only about a quarter of overall membership of the House.

Congressional Republican leaders, who ordinarily try to block Obama at every turn, have generally taken a more restrained approach when it comes to U.S. policy in Syria, though Speaker Boehner did weigh in in more detail yesterday afternoon.

After taking a rather passive approach on Monday, the House Speaker went a little further yesterday.

Speaker John A. Boehner sent a letter to President Barack Obama Wednesday seeking a "clear, unambiguous explanation" of how a strike on Syria fits into U.S. objectives and questioning the president's legal authority to do so absent Congressional authorization.The Ohio Republican makes clear he believes the consultation with Congress so far has been insufficient, and it comes as numerous House members have signed on to a letter to Obama demanding Congressional authorization before strikes.

I think Boehner is still missing the point. The Speaker's argument seems to be that Obama hasn't explained himself thoroughly enough, and should do more to let Congress know what he has in mind. And while that may or may not be true, Boehner is still talking about the president "consulting" with Congress about what the military will do whether Congress likes it or not, rather than talking about whether members need to give Obama the authorization to act.

Indeed, according to multiple accounts, administration officials are preparing a detailed briefing for lawmakers today. By the Speaker's reasoning, that will effectively end the White House's obligations -- lawmakers will be better informed and their questions about available intelligence will be answered. If members say they remain skeptical of the mission, the Obama administration won't be under any obligation to give a darn.

As for the Senate, members have been awfully quiet, with only two Democrats urging the White House to seek congressional approval. Yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined them.

That's three out of 100.

For the record, the White House's general argument seems to be that the possible mission is so limited, it falls far short of measures under the War Powers Act or Art. 1, Sec. 8 of the Constitution. If Obama were planning a large-scale invasion of Syria, obviously congressional approval would be required, but as far as the administration is concerned, two or three days of limited, targeted airstrikes is less in need of authorization.

Of course, once we get into parsing the meaning of "military intervention," there's a problem.