James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Has Congress Ever Denied a President’s Request to Authorize Military Force?

by James M. Lindsay
September 3, 2013

President Barack Obama discusses a military response to Syria with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters). President Barack Obama discusses a military response to Syria with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters).

Many people inside the Beltway doubt that President Obama will succeed in convincing Congress to authorize a military strike against Syria. Which raises a question. If the skeptics turn out to be right, would Obama be the first president to have Congress turn down his request to authorize military action? No, but he would be the first one in a very long time.

Presidents before World War II were much more scrupulous than their successors about asking Congress to authorize military action. The downside to this deference to Capitol Hill is that sometimes Congress said no. Here are a few examples:

  • In 1805, Thomas Jefferson urged Congress to authorize him to take action against Spain in a dispute over the boundary separating Florida (then Spanish territory) and Louisiana. Congress did nothing.
  • In 1831, Andrew Jackson asked Congress for authority to order reprisals against French shipping and property if France continued to avoid paying damage claims that dated back to the Napoleonic era. The Senate voted unanimously against the request. Jackson let the issue drop.
  • In 1859, James Buchanan asked Congress to authorize sending troops into Mexico to punish Indians who were conducting cross-border raids. Congress said no.
  • In 1891, Benjamin Harrison asked Congress for authority “to take such action as may be deemed appropriate” to punish Chile for refusing to apologize after a mob killed two American sailors. Congress declined to authorize hostilities.
  • In 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for authority to arm American-owned merchant vessels so they could sink German U-boats that had been preying on American shipping. Senators Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) and George Norris (R-Neb.) led a filibuster that killed the bill.

In the first four instances, the president accepted defeat and moved on. Wilson took a different tack. He denounced his opponents as “a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own.” Then in a move that post-World War II presidents would emulate more than once, he determined that an obscure federal statute—in his case, one written in 1819—gave him the authority Congress just denied him. No constitutional crisis erupted because Congress voted to declare war on Germany less than a month later.

No president since Wilson has had Congress reject a war power request. But with modern presidents far less willing to ask for permission and with Congress far less willing to defend its prerogatives, there haven’t been many opportunities. In the few instances (Kosovo, Libya) in which the president favored military action in the face of a skeptical Congress, presidents acted and left Congress to grumble and withhold its blessing. Syria looked to be headed for a repeat of that practice until President Obama’s surprise announcement on Saturday.

If Congress does say no to military strikes on Syria, don’t expect President Obama to emulate Woodrow Wilson and go ahead anyway. True, the president did say on Saturday that “I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” (He did not say whether that power is rooted in statute or in the inherent powers of the presidency.) However, ignoring a “no” vote from Congress would have enormous political costs. When Wilson acted in 1917 he had substantial majorities in Congress and the American public on his side. Obama has neither.

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