How Many Times Has Congress Tried to Limit Presidential Power in Foreign Affairs?

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Originally published 2-28-07

Mr. Vettese was an HNN intern.

As popular support for the current Iraq War continues to plummet, Congress has become increasing vocal in its opposition.  The recent attempt to censure the troop “surge” in Baghdad and talk of withholding funds for the war are illustrations of this new sentiment.  This is not the first time that Congress has attempted to thwart presidential war planning. There are a number of examples from the 20th century:

  • Occupation of Nicaragua (1926)

In 1926, civil war broke out in Nicaragua.  In the name of protecting American lives and property, the usual excuse, President Calvin Coolidge sent ships and marines.  Unsurprisingly the State Department resorted to spreading apocryphal rumors that Nicaragua was a hotbed of Bolshevism.  Congress eventually grew tired of almost sixteen unbroken years of American occupation of Nicaragua and in 1932 voted to withhold funds for marines to supervise the upcoming election.  The US pulled out in 1933.

  • The destroyer-base deal (1940)

In 1940, Germany, France and Britain were at war.  Although President Roosevelt sympathized with the western allies, he refused their requests for superannuated destroyers, as Congress believed that they could not be spared.  To this end, Congress passed a resolution to prevent the sale of the destroyers unless the head of the American navy agreed such a deal would not jeopardize the ability of the US to defend its coastal waters.  After the defeat of France in the summer, and the success of the German U-boat campaign, Roosevelt cared less about constitutional niceties.  Knowing that the deal would be opposed by congress, he skirted it entirely and made an agreement with Britain solely on the dubious constitutional basis of his executive authority.  He exchanged fifty old destroyers for ninety-nine year leases on British Caribbean bases.

  • “The Great Debate” (1951)

After acquiescing to Truman’s blatant bypassing of Congress to initiate the Korean War--Truman went to the UN instead of Congress for permission--legislators (led by Senator Taft) reacted strongly against further presidential encroachments.  “The Great Debate” was concerned with whether to substantially increase American ground forces in Europe to counter Soviet aggression.  Truman believed that as Commander-in-Chief, he had the unrestricted right to send troops “anywhere in the world.”  A sense-of-the-Senate resolution was successfully passed supporting the transference of four divisions to Europe only on the condition that future commitments would be approved by Congress. 

  • National Commitments Resolution (1969)

After the stunning Tet offensive in 1968, popular and congressional support for the war in Vietnam withered.  Although Congress had previously backed Presidential initiatives in Vietnam, Congress now slowly sought to distance itself from the disastrous venture.  Similar to the “Great Debate” eighteen years before, the National Commitments Resolution advises Presidents to seek the consent of Congress before committing troops overseas in the future.  In 1971 the Congress repealed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

  • Cooper-Church Amendment (1971)

During the Vietnam War, President Nixon ordered a large scale incursion of American troops into nominally neutral Cambodia to obstruct the Ho Chi Min Trail.  Congress disapproved of this expansion of the war, and in 1971, it passed the Cooper-Church amendment limiting American forces to South Vietnam.  Nixon loosely interpreted the parameters of the statue, and continued to order bombings of Cambodia until 1973. 

  • War Powers Resolution (1973)

After the debacle of the Vietnam War, Congress sought to rein-in the overweening presidency, which was blamed for the misadventure.  In November 1973, the House and Senate jointly passed the War Powers Resolution with the intent to “insure the collective judgment of both the Congress and the president will apply to the introduction of the United States Armed forces into hostiles.”  It affirmed that the president could only send the military into combat if he had obtained a declaration of war, specific statutory authorization, or if there was a national emergency.  If troops are introduced without congressional blessing, the president must report the use of force within 48 hours to Congress.  If the president does not receive congressional backing for the conflict after sixty days, he must terminate hostilities.  Although most presidents have expressly denied the constitutionality of the resolution, all have formally adhered to its requirements.

  • Panama (1989)

In December 1989 President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama with 24,000 troops while Congress was out of session.  The war was formally justified by the need to protect the expatriate community of 35,000 Americans, to restore democracy, stop drug trafficking, and uphold the Canal Treaty.  Despite the controversial premises for military action, when Congress reconvened it passed a resolution condoning Bush’s actions.  However, it tried to ensure that the war would not set a precedent by inserting a clause committing the US to the policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.

  • The Gulf War (1990-1991)

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, President George H.W. Bush ordered a large force to deter further aggression.  President Bush claimed that he had sufficient authority as president to launch the war without congressional approval. Like Truman, he went to the UN for backing for the war.   The House reacted by passing a resolution stating that the President must seek approval from Congress before launching a war in the Gulf unless American lives were in imminent danger.  The law ended up in federal court. The court ruled that it cannot decide such a political question, but criticized the President for believing that he alone could take the country to war in the absence of an attack.  In January 1991 President Bush reversed course and asked Congress for legislation signifying its support for his policy, though he continued to maintain that he did not need it.

  • Somalia (1992-1994)

At the end of his administration in 1992, President Bush sent American troops to assist in the delivery of food aid for famine-ravaged Somalia.  The nature of the humanitarian mission became more orientated towards combat after the deaths of twenty-three Pakistani peacekeepers in June 1993.  President Clinton, who by then had assumed office, decided to crush the perpetrator, the Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.  By September 1993, with the mission becoming increasingly unpopular, Congress drafted legislation requiring the President to remove troops within a fixed period of time unless he received the legislature's approval.  A compromise between the executive and legislative branches was worked out. It was agreed that funding for the war would cease after March 31, 1994 and the troops would be withdrawn. Furthermore, American troops were not to be put under UN command.

  • Haiti (1994)

In 1994, President Clinton sent troops to assist in the restoration of the deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  A force of six hundred marines was prevented from landing by militants.  President Clinton then began to prepare for a much larger invasion.  Reacting to Clinton’s saber-rattling, Congress passed a “sense of congress” resolution to restrain Clinton from launching a war without first obtaining the approval of Congress.  Soon after, the House passed an amendment reiterating the president’s need to obtain congress’s sanction before a war in Haiti; however this amendment was voted down two weeks later.  The crisis climaxed after the UN Security Council passed a resolution inviting states to depose the Haitian military dictatorship.  The Senate passed a “sense of the senate” resolution stating that security resolutions do not preclude congressional participation.  Clinton maintained that he did not require Congress’s consent.  Conflict between the two branches was averted when Jimmy Carter struck a deal between the Haitian government and the opposition.

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More Comments:

George Robert Gaston - 6/20/2007

It goes back a little further. Congress was not too happy with Jefferson supressing piracy in North Africa.

John Edward Philips - 3/5/2007

Service members can't refuse an order on the grounds that they don't like a policy, even one that benefits one section of the population at the expense of others. What policy doesn't benefit one section of society at the expense of others?

Only illegality is grounds for refusing an order. It has not been often used, and I, for one, am sorry that Lt. Watada's court case ended in a mistrial.

John Edward Philips - 3/5/2007

What happened to the Congressional cutoff of funds to the South African and Chinese backed FNLA-UNITA faction in the Angolan Civil War of the 1970s? Didn't that count as foreign policy, or is Africa still off the radar screen?

Robert Desmarais Sullivan - 3/4/2007

While it is necessary to have a military for defense, it is abundantly clear that absolute power vested in a commander-in-chief tempts the commander to use the military for personal reasons, usually related to the advantages of the socioeconomic or ethnic group to which he thinks he belongs. The rest of us as mere citizens suffer the consequence of being obliged to fight, suffer, and die for a sub-group of Americans, instead of for America. I resent the use of the American military by arrogant presidents, and I do believe that the military is not obliged by any duty to country to obey his orders under such circumstances.