Trump Vetoes Bipartisan Measure to Stop War Against Iran
Before the world began to adapt to a life of quarantine, and before the biggest priority in Congress was quadrupling the deficit, the deliberative body did find time to devote to foreign policy. Following the White House’s decision to assassinate Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January, both houses of congress responded by passing S. J. Res. 68, which would have precluded the president from engaging in hostilities with Iran without explicit authorization from Congress to use military force.
The joint resolution passed with bipartisan support, with a 55-45 vote in the senate in February, and a 227-186 vote in the House in March. After gathering cobwebs for nearly two months, it finally reached the resolute desk on Wednesday, where it was promptly vetoed. This is the second war powers resolution that Donald Trump has vetoed, following the one on Yemen from March of last year.
Calling the resolution “very insulting,” Trump criticized its Republican supporters, such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, accusing them of playing right into the hands of Democrats who want to divide the GOP before November’s election.
In Trump’s interpretation of events, the United States and Iran are not engaged in “the use of force.” This is diametrically opposed to the facts of the past two years. Since the U.S. government withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, it has imposed a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions that seeks to strangle the Iranian economy and people through economic warfare. The assassination of Soleimani—a military and political figure of a foreign nation—with a U.S. drone strike would in any rational circumstance be treated as an act of war. Iran’s immediate response, a missile attack launched from their territory, injured dozens of U.S. soldiers.
President Trump cites two documents that he believes authorizes his actions: The 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq, and Article II of the Constitution. How a resolution authorizing military action against the regime of Saddam Hussein can, over 19 years later, be used to justify the assassination of an Iranian general is anyone’s guess.
What is more frightening, however, is the president’s assumption of supreme power in foreign affairs. “The resolution implies that the President’s constitutional authority to use military force is limited to defense of the United States and its forces against imminent attack,” reads the veto message. “That is incorrect. We live in a hostile world of evolving threats, and the Constitution recognizes that the President must be able to anticipate our adversaries’ next moves and take swift and decisive action in response.”
This statement simultaneously abandons the sovereignty of the U.S. nation—with the president claiming equal, transcendent authority in all parts of world—and perverts the Constitution which in Article I grants congress the sole power to declare war.
In support of this end, in 1973 congress passed, over President Richard Nixon’s veto, the War Powers Act, acknowledging that outside of “situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances,” it is up to the people’s elected representatives to decide when the United States engages its military forces.
Twice now Trump has rebuffed the invocation of this law, an action he could not have taken under its original iteration. In its first decade on the books, the War Powers Act’s primary enforcement measure was the use of a concurrent resolution, which only requires a simple majority from both houses of congress and cannot be vetoed by the president.
This was until 1983, when in the decision INS v. Chadha, the Supreme Court used a narrow case about the deportation of a stateless individual to overstep its jurisdiction and declare that legislative vetoes in all forms, including the use of concurrent resolutions, are unconstitutional.
“The breadth of this holding gives one pause,” wrote Justice Lewis Powell, who sided with the majority despite his misgivings. “Congress has included the veto in literally hundreds of statutes, dating back to the 1930’s. Congress clearly views this procedure as essential to controlling the delegation of power to administrative agencies.”
In their dissent, Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist warned that by throwing out the concurrent resolution, the Supreme Court was depriving the legislature of one of its key checks on rampant abuse by the executive branch. “The prominence of the legislative veto mechanism in our contemporary political system and its importance to Congress can hardly be overstated. It has become a central means by which Congress secures the accountability of executive and independent agencies,” White wrote. Without this option, Congress is compelled by practicality “to abdicate its lawmaking function to the Executive Branch and independent agencies,” which inevitably “risks unaccountable policymaking by those not elected to fill that role.”
While the justices rightfully feared overeager EPA administrators, the larger threat has emerged in the form of a president superseding Congress’ authority over questions of war and peace. That is why it is incumbent upon a responsible Congress to challenge Trump’s imperial usurpation, and repass the prohibition against unilateral war with Iran, this time using a concurrent resolution.
In fact, the version passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year actually was a concurrent resolution. Only after the Senate passed a joint resolution, which a president has the authority to veto, did the House acquiesce to their rendition.
Previous cases related to the War Powers Act have been dismissed by the Supreme Court for lack of standing. Only Congress, as a coequal branch of government, has the gravitas to dare either the president to veto the new resolution or make the Supreme Court strike it down.
Victory comes with the Supreme Court reversing its earlier, broad decision, in favor of something much narrower, which acknowledges the congressional prerogative to use the legislative veto on matters of war. As long as the War Powers Act is deprived of the concurrent resolution, it will remain defanged and unenforceable.
The lives of American servicemen are worth too much, and the destructiveness of war too great, for Congress not to provoke this confrontation. Throwing down the gauntlet is the only way to restore Congressional authority, fulfill its Constitutional obligations under Article I, and reign in our endless wars.
Hunter DeRensis is Assistant Editor at the Libertarian Institute and a regular contributor to The American Conservative. You can follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.