Amash, Lee push for new debate on war authorization

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a west Michigan Republican, is working with liberal colleagues trying to force Congress to assert its war-making power — not to start a new conflict abroad but to properly authorize current U.S. engagements.

Amash, who represents the Grand Rapids area, argues that Congress has given up ownership and oversight of military conflicts by allowing a series of administrations to use the 2001 and 2002 war resolutions issued after 9/11 as authorizations for “seemingly endless war” in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

He wants Congress to debate and vote on a narrower authorization for deploying U.S. military forces overseas — a measure known as an “authorization for use of military force,” or AUMF.

The Constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war, and lawmakers never specifically authorized the fight against groups such as the Islamic State.

“Though modern presidents like to ignore this point, the framers were quite clear that the president isn’t to decide when or why we go to war,” Amash said at a hearing this week on Capitol Hill. “Letting the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs linger on has allowed successive administrations to use increasingly creative interpretations of them to justify all manner of military actions abroad.”

For instance, President Donald Trump’s administration recently cited the 2002 AUMF as authority to address any threats emanating from Iraq.

Amash, head of the libertarian-leaning House Liberty Caucus, is joined in his quest by anti-war California Democrat Barbara Lee. Lee last year tried to amend a defense bill to repeal the 16-year-old war authorization used to justify the fight against terrorism.

Lee’s amendment was approved by the GOP-led Appropriations Committee in June, but Republican House leaders stripped out the measure before the bill passed the chamber.

House Speaker Paul Ryan told the website Real Clear Politics at the time it was a “mistake” for the committee to allow the amendment.

“There’s a right way to deal with this, and an appropriations bill I don’t think is the right way to deal with this,” Ryan said. “What matters to me is that we don’t undercut the military and, whatever we do, we don’t put ourselves, meaning the military, in a disadvantageous position.”

Similarly, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, tried in September to repeal the 2001 and 2002 war resolutions in the Senate — a vote that ultimately failed. Some lawmakers raised concerns about rescinding the AUMF without a new one ready to replace it.

Amash and his allies say lawmakers aren’t having this conversation, so they hosted a hearing on Capitol Hill that drew bipartisan participation.

Lee noted the Trump administration has not requested any war authorization from Congress.

“We’ve asked the Trump administration many times with regard to their legal authority and do they need or do they want an authorization, and it’s been very, ‘not really,’” said Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 AUMF.

“They want to continue using the 2001 (authorization) as the authority for whatever they do anywhere in the world.”

One of the witnesses to testify, Rita Siemion, international legal counsel for the group Human Rights First, said Congress could draft a resolution narrowly tailored to a group or country and avoid the problems of the 2001 and 2002 authorizations by including a sunset provision.

“It’s the wrong question to ask can we draft an AUMF that rubber-stamps and authorizes everything we’re doing right now. The question is to what extent is military force needed, where is it needed, who is it needed against and why,” she said.

Rep. Warren Davidson, an Ohio Republican, said he’s frustrated with the billions that the nation spends on the conflicts overseas.

“My frustration is that our leadership here will say, well, it’s not appropriate to cut off funds,” Davidson said. “The cost is to spend even more money that we don’t have.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the problem is that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to debate war or go on the record voting one way or the other. He called it “moral cowardice.”

“We have these debates on appropriations to support our men and women in uniform, and everybody gets up in a bipartisan way and talks about how great they are serving our country. They are great,” McGovern said.

“But we don’t even give them the respect to debate whether or not the wars and conflicts we have them involved in — to debate them and to discuss them on the House floor. It is wrong.”