Abraham Lincoln reminds us in the Gettysburg Address that we are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and through these means we have ensured that every citizen has a voice in the functions of our government. But in recent decades this voice has been suppressed.
Like any other decision, entering conflict should be conducted democratically. And while measures have been taken to enforce democratic practices in war, the inherent changes in conflict in recent decades have taken power from the majority and isolated authority in the Oval Office. For this reason, it is essential that Congress reassert its responsibility for authorizing armed conflict.
In the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances, established in our Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war and to appropriate funding for defense while the president is the ex officio commander in chief of the military. This system was well balanced until the mid-20th century. The majority of armed conflicts were made official through war declarations between nations. But in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the world experienced a significant change in the nature of conflict, and this has given a disproportionate amount of power to the executive branch.
Congress has attempted to check this power by passing the War Powers Act of 1973. This act allows up to 90 days of continuous military occupation without congressional approval (among other protocols), but is the closest that the legislative branch has come to regaining appropriate responsibility. Although the act puts restrictions on the president’s ability to involve us in war, it fails to introduce consequences for failures to meet these — often generous — guidelines.
Why, one might question, does more power need to go to Congress when it so often fails to come to timely agreements? Although military threats can often require near immediate action, it is important that decisions, especially in regard to armed conflict, reflect the nation’s values. For this reason, the legislative branch must reassert its power.
A single individual, even one democratically elected, should not hold the power to enter major conflict. If the need is dire enough, Congress will be forced to come to a timely decision.
It has proven difficult for Congress to reassert this power in the face of objections from the executive branch. Many presidents have felt that they do not possess enough military responsibility under the War Powers Act to be able to act efficiently. On the contrary, the War Powers Act gives the president great leverage in military conflict with minimal consent from Congress.
For example, congressional approval of military action in Afghanistan was meant to target those directly related to the 9/11 attacks. Yet, almost 17 years later, Osama Bin Laden is dead and the U.S. is still fighting the “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan. President Donald Trump recently made the executive decision to drop bombs on Syria with no consent from Congress.
These are actions that affect the entire country, and the people of this nation need a greater voice in decisions regarding military conflict. This can be achieved through power given to Congress — a body that is more representative than the executive branch.
In this modern time of undeclared armed conflict, it remains imperative that the people retain power in our government. The functions of our governing body need to be modified to reflect the times and we are currently lagging behind. Congress cannot continue to relinquish responsibility and hide behind executive decisions. To protect our democratic system, Congress must reassert its authority in armed conflict to let our decisions reflect the true sentiments of the people.
Maine’s senators and representatives can contribute to this effort by bringing this topic to discussion and by posing platforms and ideas about checks and balances to start the discussion. By doing this, our voices will be heard on a federal level and the inherent power of the legislative branch can be tapped to represent the people of this nation in military conflicts and preserve the essential structures of this democracy.
Alexander Les is a senior at Freeport High School.
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