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.