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The nation is heading toward a constitutional showdown over the Iraq war. Congress is moving closer to passing a bill to limit or end the war, but President Bush insists Congress doesn’t have the power to do it. “I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war,” he said at a recent press conference. “I think they ought to be funding the troops.” He added magnanimously: “I’m certainly interested in their opinion.”
When they drafted the Constitution, Madison and his colleagues wrote their skepticism into the text. In Britain, the king had the authority to declare war, and raise and support armies, among other war powers. The framers expressly rejected this model and gave these powers not to the president, but to Congress.
The Constitution does make the president “commander in chief,” a title President Bush often invokes. But it does not have the sweeping meaning he suggests. The framers took it from the British military, which used it to denote the highest-ranking official in a theater of battle. Alexander Hamilton emphasized in Federalist No. 69 that the president would be “nothing more” than “first general and admiral,” responsible for “command and direction” of military forces.
The founders would have been astonished by President Bush’s assertion that Congress should simply write him blank checks for war. They gave Congress the power of the purse so it would have leverage to force the president to execute their laws properly. Madison described Congress’s control over spending as “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”
The framers expected Congress to keep the president on an especially short leash on military matters. The Constitution authorizes Congress to appropriate money for an army, but prohibits appropriations for longer than two years. Hamilton explained that the limitation prevented Congress from vesting “in the executive department permanent funds for the support of an army, if they were even incautious enough to be willing to repose in it so improper a confidence.”
Members of Congress should not be intimidated into thinking that they are overstepping their constitutional bounds. If the founders were looking on now, it is not Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who would strike them as out of line, but George W. Bush, who would seem less like a president than a king.