A commission led by former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher recently issued a proposal to replace the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution of 1973 with a new law to clarify which branch of government has authority to take the nation to war.
Regrettably, the Baker-Christopher commission – like too many well-intentioned critics and commentators – has started with the wrong question: Can the president act alone, or must he consult?
That approach turns the Constitution on its head. The proper question is whether the president has any constitutional role in authorizing the use of force, except when he acts to defend the nation against actual or imminent attack. Under the Constitution, his role is to recommend undertaking a war and, Congress approves, to conduct the war as commander in chief.
The commission focused on the failings of the War Powers Resolution instead of looking for guidance to the war powers provisions in the Constitution. Articles I and II are explicit: The Congress has the exclusive authority to decide if and when we go to war, while the president has the exclusive authority to decide how we wage that war.
Giving war-deciding power to the legislative branch and war-conducting to the executive was purposeful and strategic. This division of authority and responsibility remains integral to the fabric of the country.
As James Madison once observed, "In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department... [T]he temptation would be too great for any one man."