Three days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the president to "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks."
Despite concerns that Senate Joint Resolution 23 was giving the Bush administration, and future presidents, a blank check to wage war wherever and whenever they chose — usurping a constitutional requirement that only Congress can declare war — the resolution passed in the heat of the moment with only one dissenting vote, from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
Since then, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force has been used dozens of times by the executive branch as grounds for military actions around the globe, according to a 2016 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service. The research service counted 18 times when the Bush administration used Resolution 23, and 19 times when the Obama administration did.
The framers of the Constitution reserved the power to declare war to Congress for good reasons. They didn't want the president to be a de facto elected monarch. They also felt that war should be difficult to enter and expected congressional debate to restrain the war-making process, according to congressional archives.
The conflicts in the Middle East aren't the first time that a president has sidestepped, or attempted to sidestep, the requirement that only Congress can declare war. But it should be the last.
A bill currently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would empower presidents to expand the scope of the United States’ war on terrorism to new groups and new areas without seeking congressional authorization, entrenching the executive branch's power to enter into new conflicts.
Oregon Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley has introduced a bill in Congress aimed at instead restoring to Congress the authority to declare war, as intended by the Founding Fathers. Merkley's bill would, among other things, require congressional approval before the president could commit ground forces to a conflict or expand an existing conflict, and contains sunset provisions (https://bit.ly/2IUnZQw).
Thousands of American men and women have died in Middle East fighting since 2001, and many tens of thousands more have been wounded. Yet Congress has never declared a war, or been asked to justify one. Merkley's bill would require that before any more Americans risk their lives, or die, in conflicts around the world that Congress do the hard work, including public debate, of making sure it is justified — as the writers of the Constitution intended. To support his bill, contact Merkley at https://www.merkley.senate.gov/contact.