Congress Must Take Sides in the War Against Terrorists

A threat to Islamic State?

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After ignoring for months President Barack Obama’s request that Congress pass a legal authorization for the war against Islamic State, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suddenly decided to put a proposed measure on the chamber’s fast track to a vote. Unfortunately, the proposal doesn’t inspire confidence that legislators are finally taking their constitutional responsibility seriously.

The measure basically hands the executive branch a blank check. It contains no limits on the use of ground troops, only the vaguest reporting requirements, and no expiration date. McConnell’s decision to put it on the calendar is actually a step backward: The White House submitted a more serious draft authorization a year ago, and there have been several better ones proposed by legislators.

What would a model measure contain? First, it would rationalize the administration’s various wars in terror by superseding the 2001 and 2002 measures authorizing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Taliban have varying agendas and are often in opposition, they are best battled under a single legal rationale.

As for the offshoots and allies of those primary antagonists, the measure would require the administration to report to Congress every 90 days on what specific terrorist groups have been added to its list of combatants. That list would be made public except when doing so would violate national security.

Any authorization for use of military force should have an expiration date -- ideally it would need re-authorization every two years, which is a year sooner than the White House has proposed. Putting geographical limits on any resolution is probably a bad idea, given the borderless nature of the conflict. But, again, the president would have to keep Congress and the public informed.

The decision to send Americans to fight overseas is among the most serious and consequential votes any member of Congress can make -- and this Congress is no different. At the same time, the vote has become a political issue, with many Democrats wanting a ban on a large combat force and many Republicans saying they should not tie the hands of the commander in chief.

One clever proposal that deserves more consideration comes from Democratic Representative Adam Schiff: While the president would be empowered to unilaterally deploy ground forces in a combat role, any member of Congress would be able to put forth a measure blocking or modifying the White House plan using an expedited procedure laid out in the War Powers Resolution.

QuickTake U.S. War Powers

McConnell’s proffered AUMF, which was drafted by Senator Lindsey Graham, has already been dismissed by top Republicans, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker. If the majority leader wants to show that Congress takes its responsibility seriously, his next step is clear: Join with House Speaker Paul Ryan and thoughtful members of both chambers and parties to pass a comprehensive, bipartisan measure putting the war against jihadism on firm constitutional ground.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.