WASHINGTON — Congress should enact a law authorizing the use of the military to fight ISIS, al-Qaida, the Taliban and other enemies fighting the U.S. so that members of Congress have to join the president in taking responsibility for war costs, according to Sens. Jeff Flake and Tim Kaine.
The pair is proposing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which would repeal previous post-Sept. 11 authorizations, which they call overly broad. Under the new bill, while the president would be able to immediately begin military action in another country against those groups, the action would stop if Congress votes to disapprove within 60 days. However, the president does not need congressional approval in countries where fighting is already happening —Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
Everything authorized under the new bill would expire after five years, including previously approved countries, at which point Congress would review the legislation. But the bill contains an expedited process to renew the authorization for another five years.
The original war authorization came a few days after Sept. 11. According to Flake, only 135 of the 435 current House members were in Congress at the time and only 23 of the 100 senators, meaning most members of Congress have never had to approve the military fighting now going on.
"That’s simply not right," Flake said Wednesday at a Wilson Center event.
Kaine agreed, saying, "Frankly, lack of backbone" is the main reason Congress avoids war votes. However, he said that a "good process doesn’t make a war decision easy."
"[James] Madison recognized that executives will overreach in matters of war," Kaine said in an interview. "Madison did not really understand that Congress tends to abdicate. So, who do you blame it on? Do you blame it on an executive that overreaches or a Congress that abdicates?"
The senators hope to at least fix the process problem. The legislationwould narrow which enemies fall under the new authorization. It lists al-Qaida, the Taliban, ISIS and "associated persons or forces" that "substantially" support those three groups or are "engaged in hostilities against the United States, its armed forces, or its other personnel."
Kaine emphasized that this doesn’t include all groups claiming affiliation with terrorists. For example, the use of U.S. military force against Boko Haram, a Nigerian terror group, would not be allowed because, while the group claims affiliation with ISIS, it is not actively "engaged in hostilities" against the U.S.
Kaine and Flake also focused on congressional oversight and responsibility for foreign policy and raising public awareness.
"Members of Congress are not feeling the heat," Flake said. "The lack of backbone is simply a function of you’re not hearing it from your constituents and you can afford to just let it go."
One reason Congress is not hearing complaints from constituents about current wars may be that their personal lives and wallets are not affected.
"Up through Vietnam, we would at least tax ourselves for war," Kaine said. "We don’t have a draft. We put it all on the credit card. Congress doesn’t have to vote on it. … All of those things are essentially compounding outsourcing of the moral gravity of the decision."
According to Kaine, this moral outsourcing allows Congress to support the president if military action goes well and criticize executive overreach if it doesn’t.
Kaine said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing next week on the bill but didn’t predict when it would get a committee vote.
"These things often assume a timing of their own, so we’ll see."