This has been a great year for those who want to reassert Congress’s war powers. Okay, not quite great, but the debate over congressional war powers gained renewed interest over the summer and continued into the fall. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation to update the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In a shocking development, an amendment to rescind the 2001 AUMF introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) — the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization at the time — was approved in a committee vote.
And most recently, Sen. Rand Paul(R-Ky.) sat on the Senate floor to block a defense authorization billuntil his amendment to end the 2001 AUMF and subsequent 2002 AUMF in Iraq was considered.
None of these efforts have been successful, but in light of President Trump’s recent decision to extend the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan nearly sixteen years after it first began, bipartisan interest in America’s ongoing wars is a welcome development. It is important therefore to realize that, while necessary, even a successful congressional authorization of military force is insufficient for accountability regarding America’s wars.
Repealing and replacing the 2001 AUMF is insufficient because it cannot, on its own, provide political incentive for legislators to hold the executive branch accountable for the initiation or conduct of wars. The legislation proposed by Kaine and Flake, for example, focuses on congressional procedures. It would repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF and replaces the post-Sept. 11 authorization.
The new AUMF would sunset after five years, but it would provide an expedited process for reauthorization. It would demand the administration provide Congress with a strategy for its ongoing conflicts. However, as both Kaine and Flake acknowledge, the procedural fixes enable congressional oversight. They do not provide the political incentive for Congress to actually conduct it.
There are obvious reasons why legislators will be reluctant to do so. Remaining aloof from debates about war and peace allows members of Congress to criticize the executive when a war goes badly, and claim credit when it succeeds.
That Congress is generally apathetic about ongoing wars suggests that even an updated AUMF is likely to be abused by the executive branch. When accountability is absent, the frequency, duration, and inefficiency of wars are likely to increase. America’s post-Sept. 11 conflicts, which the Watson Center for International and Public Affairs at Brown Universityestimates cost around $4.79 trillion as of last September, are prime examples of this tendency. The Trump administration’s decision to extend the war in Afghanistan promises that price tag will increase.
One of several culprits behind congressional passivity regarding the use of military force is the American people. They have little, if any, incentive to hold their elected representatives accountable on issues of war and peace. The American public is, for the most part, insulated from the costs of war.
Given its geographic isolation, the United States is immune to major military threats short of a nuclear attack. Because a meager percentage of the American people — fewer than one percent — serve in the U.S. military, only a small number experience combat or even come into contact with those who do. Many legislators do not have veterans of today’s wars among their constituents. Income inequality, progressive taxation, and debt financing ensure that the financial repercussions of perpetual war do not hit home for most Americans.
Recent studies have shown that the way wars are financed affects public support for them.
Because today’s wars are debt financed, the bills are deferred and American taxpayers can continue pursuing consumption rather than having such spending displaced by the taxes necessary to fund military operations. However, experimental survey research by political scientists Sarah Kreps and Gustavo A. Flores-Macías found that paying for conflicts through taxation decreases support for war. If that dissatisfaction translates to the voter booth, legislators may have more incentive to conduct oversight of the executive regarding the use of military force.
Legislators at the center of the AUMF debate are aware of this fact. In a July interview discussing the proposal to update the post-Sept. 11 authorization, Sen. Flake acknowledged, “Members of Congress are not feeling the heat.” Because they do not hear from their constituents, legislators lack the “backbone” to conduct oversight. Kaine, for his part, noted that debt-financing wars is one of the things that lets Congress off the hook.
Even after sixteen years in Afghanistan, with operations ongoing in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, most Americans have avoided the costs of war. And their elected representatives have avoided accountability as a result.
Lee, Kaine, Flake, and Paul should be applauded for their efforts in bringing attention to this issue. However, the politics of overseeing the use of military force are just as important as the procedure for doing so. In other words, congressional authorization for the use of military force is necessary, but it is also insufficient.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill