Congress may reassert its authority when it comes to war

A beautiful thing happened last week.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of restricting military action against Iran without Congressional approval. The Senate may be about to do the same.

The politics are interesting. The House vote was — unsurprisingly — led by Democrats. So it would normally be easy to chalk up to partisan gamesmanship. However, one of the votes in favor of constraining the executive branch came from GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz. While opposing the White House on that vote, he is one of President Donald Trump’s foremost defenders in the ongoing impeachment saga.

Additionally, there are reports that enough Republicans in the Senate are willing to join with the Democratic minority to pass a similar resolution.

That is a beautiful thing.

The U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Forget Trump, or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The personalities don’t matter. The principle goes back to the Framers.

In grade school, American students learn about the “separation of powers.” Rather than consolidate the power of government, the Constitution spells out a delicate tension amongst the three co-equal branches.

Article I establishes Congress. It is the first amongst equals. And the reason is plain; it is the branch which most closely follows public opinion, or at least should.

Because it is meant to reflect popular opinion, it alone was given the power to declare war. The recent votes around Iran harken back to this foundation of our nation.

Trump’s strike against Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani generated a lot of headlines. He was an international terrorist, focused on fomenting hate and discontent throughout the world for the benefit of his regime’s religious leader.  The United States had classified his agency — the Revolutionary Guard Quds Force —  as a terrorist organization in 2007, with Canada following suit in 2012.

In other words, he was a bad guy. Not unlike Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the supreme leader of ISIS, who was killed by American forces just over two months ago.  Both Baghdadi and Soleimani were merchants of death, focused on imposing their worldview upon others in their region through violence.

However, Baghdadi and ISIS came from the Sunni Islamic tradition, favored in Saudi Arabia and co-venturers with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Iran and Solemani were Shia, the other major sect in that faith, and historically at odds with the Sunnis. Soleimani was willing to overcome that adversity when it came to al-Qaeda, providing them sanctuary and support in their attacks against the United States. But he did not extend the same to ISIS, working with the United States to push them back.

It is a complicated, complex dynamic. The interplay between terrorism and its state sponsors is anything but simple. However, taking the next step — inflicting harm upon non-terrorist components of a modern nation-state — requires a reasoned, considered approach before American blood and treasure is committed.

Congress is where that deep thinking is meant to occur. Indeed, while she is under continual assault from her would-be Democratic opponents, Sen. Susan Collins attempts to live up to this high calling. That is why last year she supported something similar to the House’s recent resolution, and appears poised to do so again.

For the past several decades, the federal legislative branch has abdicated their constitutional power in favor of the executive. It is an easy way to avoid hard choices which might lead to a more difficult reelection path. Self-preservation was the order of the day, rather than bold leadership.

But maybe — just maybe — last week’s votes are the first steps towards Congress reasserting its rightful constitutional place. President George W. Bush sought authorization for Afghanistan and Iraq. President Barack Obama didn’t in Syria or Libya. Trump has not thus far tipped his hand.

However, the decision to go to war belongs to Congress. Because they are meant to reflect more closely popular opinion. And living up to the U.S. Constitution is a beautiful thing.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.