Friday, September 19th, 2014

The Obameter

Call for a consultative group of congressional leaders on national security


"I will call for a standing, bipartisan consultative group of congressional leaders on national security. I will meet with this consultative group every month and consult with them before taking major military action."


Updates

"Consultative" foreign policy group never named

According to the U.S. Constitution -- and reinforced by tradition -- the executive branch takes the lead in shaping foreign policy. That's why this 2008 campaign promise by Barack Obama -- then a senator hoping to become president -- was so striking:

"I will call for a standing, bipartisan consultative group of congressional leaders on national security,” Obama pledged. "I will meet with this consultative group every month and consult with them before taking major military action."

While key cabinet officials such as the secretary of state and other administration foreign affairs officials periodically testify before Congress, and while lawmakers receive periodic intelligence briefings, this promise is aimed more at the inter-branch tensions arising from the War Powers Resolution.

As we have written previously, the War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973, says a president can initiate military action but must receive approval from Congress to continue the operation within 60 days. If approval is not granted and the president deems it an emergency, then an additional 30 days are granted for ending operations.

On paper, the War Powers Resolution seems clear-cut. But in practice, Congress and the White House have skirmished repeatedly over it.

The resolution was intended to stop presidents from fighting wars without input from Congress. However, presidents from both parties have regularly ignored it, and Congress has often been reluctant to assert itself. Some critics have suggested that the resolution should be scrapped.

While the Constitution (Article I, Section 8) assigns the right to declare war to Congress, the last time that actually happened was at the beginning of World War II, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Since then, presidents have generally initiated military activities using their constitutionally granted powers as commander-in-chief without an official declaration of war to support their actions. In some cases, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress has complied with a presidential request for specific approval, short of a formal declaration of war.

A bipartisan duo of former secretaries of state -- Republican James Baker and the late Democrat Warren Christopher -- have teamed up to write proposed legislation that would institutionalize congressional consultation. They wrote in an op-ed column that their bill would "consistent with" the approach of the promise we're rating here.

Since our last update of this promise, the most important flashpoint came in early 2011, when the U.S. was preparing to get involved in a NATO-led campaign in Libya, where longtime dictator Muammar Gaddhafi's hold on power was teetering and civilian populations in rebellious areas were seen to be at risk.

"Although there were a few meetings, there was nothing on any regular basis, and there wasn't much engagement with Congress on how to proceed on Libya,” said Andy Fisher, a spokesman for the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican, Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

Ultimately, the administration proceeded in Libya arguing that Congressional authorization was not necessary, The House considered but rejected, by a vote of 148 yeas to 265 nays, a measure that would have "directed the president to remove the United States Armed Forces from Libya” within 15 days of the measure's passage. It also rejected, by a vote of 180 yeas to 238 nays, a measure that would have limited funding for the Libya operation. But Congress never did pass an explicit authorization. (This Congressional Research Service report has a timeline of the disagreements between the administration and Congress over approval for the Libya mission.)

Overall, the degree of cooperation between the branches prior to the start of operations over Libya does not seem to live up to the ideal of thorough, advance consultation, and the bipartisan criticism over the administration's after-the-fact rationale for acting without congressional authorization also seems to run counter to the spirit of the promise.

More importantly, this promised failed on more objective grounds. Fisher said there was no "standing, bipartisan consultative group of congressional leaders on national security” named, and that lawmakers did not meet with administration officials "every month.” We rate this a Promise Broken.

Sources:

Congressional Research Service, "War Powers Resolution: Presidential Compliance," Sept. 25, 2012

James Baker and Warren Christopher, "War act would ensure that president, Congress consult" (op-ed in USA Today), March 3, 2009

Washington Post, "Obama administration: Libya action does not require congressional approval," June 15, 2011

PolitiFact, "Are U.S. actions in Libya subject to the War Powers Resolution? A review of the evidence," June 22, 2011

Interview with Andy Fisher, spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dec. 10, 2012

White House has consulted with lawmakers on national security, but in ad-hoc fashion

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "call for a standing, bipartisan consultative group of congressional leaders on national security. I will meet with this consultative group every month and consult with them before taking major military action."

The conduct of foreign policy has long been a bone of contention between the executive and congressional branches. In particular, the question of declaring war -- a right explicitly reserved for Congress in the Constitution -- has proved controversial, as presidents in recent decades have shown a willingness to conduct major and protracted military actions overseas with something short of an unequivocal congressional declaration of war. One attempt by Congress to rein in the president on matters of war -- the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which came in the midst of the Vietnam War -- has largely been sidestepped by presidents since.

Matters came to a head since 2003 with the prosecution of the Iraq war. Many congressional Democrats argued that President George W. Bush bullied and misinformed lawmakers into green-lighting military action, and during the 2008 campaign, Obama took up the view of many in his party that the needle had shifted too far in the direction of unilateral executive branch action. He promised to shift the balance of power somewhat by providing a more important role for Congress.

Since becoming president, Obama has indeed met with congressional leaders to discuss national security issues. We've located at least two instances during which national security issues were the primary agenda item.

On March 26, 2009, the president briefed four Democratic senators and a half-dozen House leaders on policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., did not attend, citing prior commitments, and were briefed separately.

On Oct. 6, 2009, Obama met with bipartisan congressional leaders as he determined his military strategy for Afghanistan.

However, searches using Google, Whitehouse.gov and Nexis uncovered no public evidence that the administration has acted on the broader, more systematic idea outlined in the promise.

A bipartisan duo of former secretaries of state -- Republican James Baker and Democrat Warren Christopher -- have teamed up to write proposed legislation that would institutionalize congressional consultation. They wrote in an op-ed column that their bill would "consistent with" the approach of the promise we're rating here. But we could find no evidence that such a bill has been introduced in the current session of Congress.

The president has indeed consulted with Congress on several occasions, but the meetings appear to be ad-hoc rather than the institutionalized gatherings suggested by the promise. Until the president takes steps toward providing something more systematic, we're rating this promise Stalled.

Sources:

New York Times, "Obama Rules Out Large Reduction in Afghan Force," Oct. 6, 2009

New York Times, "G.O.P. Senate Leaders Skip Obama Briefing on Afghanistan and Pakistan" (Caucus Blog post), March 26, 2009

James Baker and Warren Christopher, "War act would ensure that president, Congress consult" (op-ed in USA Today), March 3, 2009

E-mail interview with Andy Fisher, spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Member Richard Lugar, Jan. 12, 2010

Internet and Nexis searches that produced no results