Journalism in the Public Interest

Whatever Happened to the War Powers Act Controversy?


Smoke billows as Libyan rebels progress westward on March 28, 2011. NATO finally agreed to take over full command of military operations to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya from a U.S.-led coalition. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Call it last month’s biggest controversy, if you’d like.

When U.S. military involvement in Libya passed the 90-day mark in June, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had sharp words—and even a lawsuit—ready for President Obama. They alleged that he’d failed to comply with the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires presidents to seek congressional approval for any hostilities lasting more than 60 days. 

The Obama administration had responded that the United States was playing a support role in Libya that didn’t rise to the level of “hostilities” and thus didn't require congressional approval. It was a legal reasoning that even lawmakers supportive of the Libya intervention ridiculed as flimsy. (Read our explainer on the War Powers Act.) The back-and-forth dominated a news cycle, and the law was brought up at about half of all the White House press briefings conducted in June.

And then, the controversy disappeared.

“Congress made a big stink about it and didn’t do anything,” University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner told me. He believes the War Powers Act puts unconstitutional constraints on executive power and that ultimately, Congress may not have wanted the responsibility of asserting its prerogatives under the War Powers Act.

“You want us to withdraw in the middle of a battle, abandoning our allies? Congress doesn’t want to do that,” Posner said. “It’s like you want someone to hold you back when you want to fight someone else. You want to look like you’re tough and you’re willing to fight, but you don’t really want to have to do it.”

But Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, who believes Obama has set a terrible precedent in Libya, said that until Congress dropped everything to debate the debt ceiling, lawmakers were actually moving to address the issue.

“I don’t think it was play acting at all,” Ackerman said. He said that if the Libya engagement continues into the fall when Congress is back in session, the controversy is sure to revive itself.

The previous congressional efforts to force the issue have ended in either defeat or had little more than symbolic effect. 

Last month anti-war lawmaker Rep. Dennis Kucinich put forward a measure calling for an end to U.S. involvement in Libya, but it failed to pass the House. House Speaker John Boehner put forward a resolution rebuking the president, which did pass, but as the New York Times noted at the time, it “was more an expression of opinion” with “no practical effect.” The House later rejected a bill that would have authorized military operations in Libya while also rejecting another that would have constrained funding for the operation. 

In the Senate, lawmakers hoping to quell the controversy crafted a resolution of support for the Libya operation—but earlier this month, Republicans protested bringing the issue to a vote. 

“Just to speak to how dysfunctional the U.S. Senate is, we’re here over the debt ceiling, but instead of focusing on the issue at hand, we’re going to focus on something that’s irrelevant possibly,” said Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, explaining his opposition to the vote. 

Several of his Republican colleagues agreed: “Our debt is our most pressing national security concern,” said Republican Sen. Roger Wicker. The Huffington Post reported that Republicans were planning to filibuster the Libya resolution or vote against it in order to move on to the debt ceiling. 

“I’ve spoken with the Republican leader just a short time ago, and we’ve agreed,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, in announcing that the vote on Libya would be postponed. “The most important thing for us to focus on this week is the budget.”

And just like that, without resolving the last controversy, Congress moved on to the next. The controversy over the debt ceiling continues, even as the deadline for that looms a week away.

Barry Schmittou

July 26, 2011, 12:52 p.m.

Laws are repeatedly turned upside down in the U.S. !!

AIG paid $800 million in fines for Securities fraud in a non prosecution agreement with the DOJ in 2006, then they got their $182 billion dollar bailout in 2008 !!

There were 32 similar bailouts in 2010, including Wachovia Bank’s 110 million dollar money laudering, and JP Morgan Securities which made at least 93 secret deals with companies that handled municipal bidding processes in 31 states.

Multiple companies like JP Morgan, MetLife and Unum have received multiple Non Prosecution agreements !! MetLife’s VP James Sullivan gave Obama $30,000 and then signed a Non prosecution agreement regarding multiple MetLife frauds, and Obama’s Directors have not responded to questions about Obama returning the money !!

Jimmy Stanfield

July 26, 2011, 11:07 p.m.

“Whatever Happened to the War Powers Act Controversy?”

Two words for you—-Casey Anthony.

Basically the American media are morons with the attention span of a 4th grader.

This is non sense how and why we stop war? america is war loving country and they are happy to kill human beings around the world and have appetit for that.
It matters to non in america whether poor americans can,t afford medicals or pay mortgage or the people have become beggers but the politicians enjoy as the defence industry has been paying their weapons commision

Once again the media fails to track things.

We are killing people in Lybia with no rhyme or reason.  Ghaddafi is going NOWHERE and we are looking like idiots.

One must never commit troops to harms way without a mission that is clearly defined and approved by the people of the country.

Injured US soldiers are making their way to The NEW Walter Reed and a few are yet resting at the current Walter Reed—I visit them.

We do not hear about this handful of casualties. It doesn’t keep them from being there and having injuries—that will be swept under the carpet by the Obama Regiem.  THere brave soldiers are in harms way—being shot and not getting the credit or support their fellow soldiers get from Afghanistand and Iraq.

Just remember that the “smaet bomb” are only smart because there is a MAN on the ground lasing the target so the bomb can hit it.

The media is in bed with Obama…next thing you know he will list the “cuts” as savings. No Budget,...No Plan…..No Direction….But safe as he has the media in his pocket.

Who else could meet with a Spanish version of the KKK and say….I will help you? LaRaza only goal is to reunite AZ and Viva Mexico. Where is hos head?

Firing missiles at another country doesn’t count as ‘hostilities’.  Got it!

We could send some ICBM’s over there and incinerate the whole country and obombalot wouldn’t consider that a violation of the war powers act.

Don’t let yourselves be fooled - the american media is in it for profit, therefore its attention span is exactly equal to that of its customers!

Why not at least vote to end the USA from paying for 75% of this ‘Kinetic Action’ in Libya?  When we’re bankrupt it irks me that we’re paying for an war activity that has zero relevance for America’s better interest.

James B Storer

July 28, 2011, 8:15 a.m.

Re comment by “Jackie,” above:
“One must never commit troops to harms way without a mission that is clearly defined and approved by the people of the country.  Injured US soldiers are making their way to The NEW Walter Reed and a few are yet resting at the current Walter Reed—I visit them.”
Perhaps Jackie’s comment is “the most important thing for us (White House, Senate, House) to focus on.”
Skartishu, Granby MO

The war powers act is still an issue with me and it should be with all americans. The on going illegal war in lybia is just one example of how this country is headed in the wrong direction. This country is literally obsessed with war and violence and continuing the illegal use of the war powers reinforces this obsession. In addition while we may believe that we can compensate for our economic weaknesses by the excessive use of military in other countries it simplies creates more economic weaknesses. This becomes a negative loop of behavior that has a negative beginning and a negative end and makes economic recovery unlikely

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