What’s Congress’ role in Obama’s call on Syria?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, issued this statement today on the Syrian government’s used of chemical weapons:

Nancy Pelosi“The Syrian government’s horrific, wanton, and undeniable use of chemical weapons against its own people is a clear violation of any moral standard and places the Assad regime well outside the circle of respect for basic human rights. President Assad’s partnership with Iran and designated terrorist organization Hezbollah to perpetrate such violence only further threatens the safety of the Syrian people and the stability of the region.

“This regime’s indiscriminate actions have claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people, internally displaced 4.25 million people, and forced 1.7 million men, women, and children to flee. We appreciate the response taken by neighboring countries to receive and address the needs of Syrian refugees.

“We join President Obama and the international community in strongly condemning the senseless violence of the Assad regime. Moving forward, Members of Congress stand ready to consult with President Obama to consider the appropriate course of action in response to these acts of brutality.”

Ah, but there’s the rub, right? Will President Obama consult Congress in a meaningful way before taking action? Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, said if he doesn’t do so, any action he takes will be illegal.

Tom McClintock“I am deeply concerned about reports that the President is preparing to order acts of war against the government of Syria without congressional authorization.

“The Constitution clearly and unmistakably vests Congress with the sole prerogative ‘to declare war.’ The President’s authority as Commander-in-Chief to order a military attack on a foreign government is implicitly limited by the Constitution to repelling an attack and explicitly limited under the War Powers Resolution to: ‘(1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.’ Unless one of these conditions is present, the decision must be made by Congress and not by the President.

“Nor does our participation in NATO allow the President to order an unprovoked act of war. The North Atlantic Treaty clearly requires troops under NATO command to be deployed in accordance with their country’s constitutional provisions. The War Powers Resolution clearly states that the President’s power to engage United States Armed Forces in hostilities ‘shall not be inferred …from any treaty heretofore or hereafter ratified unless such treaty is implemented by legislation specifically authorizing the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities…’

“Nor does the United Nations Participation Act of 1945 authorize the President to commit U.S. Armed Forces to combat in pursuit of United Nations directives without congressional approval.

“The authors of the Constitution were explicit on this point. Madison said, ‘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 … Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded.’

“In Federalist 69, Alexander Hamilton drew a sharp distinction between the American President’s authority as Commander in Chief, which he said ‘would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces’ and that of the British king who could actually declare war.

“Indeed, it is reported that the British Prime Minister has called Parliament into special session to consider the question. How ironic it would be if the British government were to act with the authorization of Parliament but the American government acted on the unilateral decision of one man.

“War is not a one-sided act that can be turned on and off with Congressional funding. Once any nation commits an act of war against another, from that moment it is at war – inextricably embroiled and entangled with an aggrieved and belligerent government and its allies that have casus belli to prosecute hostilities regardless of what Congress then decides.

“If there are facts that compel us to take such a course, let those facts be laid before Congress and let Congress fulfill its rightful constitutional role on the most momentous decision any government can make.

“I believe that absent an attack or imminent threat to the United States or a specific authorization by Congress, the order of a military attack on the government of Syria would be illegal and unconstitutional.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    So when has being illegal bothered our feckless leader?

  • GV Haste

    What has happened over the past dozens years.

    We are in a constant state of war.
    We are in wars or military action in nearly every country in the Middle East.
    12 years of war in Afghanistan.
    10 years of war in Iraq.
    Bombing and other involvement in Libya.
    Drone attacks in Pakistan
    Drone attacks in Yeman
    Military bases in Qatar.
    Now, going to war in Syria.

    Trillion+ dollars spent while the street of our own cities are filling with pot-holes.

    Is there any place in the Middle East where we don’t feel the need to bomb or invade?

    And now a new war without a vote of congress.
    No wonder the world view of America is quite different than we think about ourselves.

    This crazy idea that the United States has to do it all, and do it everywhere. We’ll never run out of places that need our intervention for “good” reasons.

    Its really a form of national insanity.
    We have to save everyone. Every nation is part of our national interests.

    As a lifelong Democrat I have to agree with Tom McClintock on this one.
    Perhaps even Barbara Lee will agree with him.

    Just too darn much war making.

    Obama and the John McCains can’t seem to find a place we don’t have to intervene in.

    Meanwhile we have our own terror on our own streets like in Oakland. Where is the concern and urgency for those dying in Oakland?

    Watch when we launch a hundred Tomahawk missiles.
    They cost over $600,000 each, up to 1 million each.

    What a freaking waste.
    We’ll easily drop 5 or 10 billion on this adventure.

    Who is advising Obama?

  • Alcoahead

    One word: Oil.

    Like a crack addict, we will do anything to get our daily fix.



  • blue collar worker

    Pelosi needs to concentrate on domestic policy, she knows nothing about world affairs – zilch – her views on Syria are all based on her reading of the New York Times. Let’s get real here. The President – Barack Obama, and Kerry, they got some credibility on issues like this, people in Congress, like Pelosi, not much. Pelosi needs to concentrate on jobs, butt out of World affairs, just a lot of hot air coming from somebody who isn’t in loop.

  • JohnW

    Gerald Seib had an excellent column in today’s Wall Street Journal analyzing all the pitfalls of acting or not acting. He’s no Obama apologist. But he was very insightful about the menu of nothing but bad options in the Syria situation, with all the broader implications regarding Iran, Israel, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, Russia etc. Anybody who reads the column and claims they know what to do or not do probably hasn’t given the matter much thought.

    As one of 435 members of a completely dysfunctional House, McClintock has the luxury of pondering Federalist 69, navel gazing or whatever. If life were only so simple.

  • JohnW


    Syria has oil? Learn something every day!

  • RRSenile Columnist

    Having used all his available weapons in the civil war, Dr Assad wouldn’t hesitate to allow their use outside Syria’s borders if he felt it worthwhile. We’ll slam a few military targets, won’t lose any personnel, kill some bystanders and then ask the Arab League to intervene. And so on.

  • Bruce R. Peterson, Lafayette

    The crusades started 1000 years ago. Now we have the military industry owning the U.S. federal government. The goal of attacking Syria, is to get a response from Iran, so Iran can be attacked for THEIR oil.

  • Alcoahead

    @5 —

    Can you say with a straight face that we (the US) would give a rat’s @$$ about that entire region IF we didn’t need the oil and IF we didn’t give those rulers the petrodollars, petroyen, petroeuros, and petroyuan that they use to finance their atrocities and general mayhem?

  • Publius

    Senator Barrak Obama
    September 7th 2007
    Clinton, Iowa

    President Bush and Dick Cheney “Do not have the support or authorization (from congress) to launch another war”.

    Senator Biden
    November 2007
    New Hampshire

    “The president does not have the authority to unilaterally attack Iran.” He then puffs up his chest and goes on to say that as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that if the President does attack “I will make a move to impeach him.”

    I agree with the two Senators that no President can start a war without the approval of congress.

    Funny how ideals once so firmly held get discarded with election results. Will the anti war pillars also flip flop? Will we hear the same chants of “Racist, unjust, Illegal War!”, or “President Obama is a War Criminal!”, or “Impeach Obama.” I hope the anti war patriots do not abandon one of my favorites that “Obama hates brown people.” I doubt we will see the same fervor.

    If the President does start another war I doubt that the media will keep a running casualty tally on the front page. The hypocrisy from the left knows no bounds.