Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Congressional war powers

Republican Senator Jacob Collamer of Vermont

I came across this speech of February 21, 1859, as recorded in The Congressional Globe (official record of Congressional speeches before The Congressional Record) by Republican Sen. Jacob Collamer of Vermont. He was speaking in opposition to the push by the slave states, encouraged by Democratic President James Buchanan, to seize Cuba and more of Mexico and perhaps other territories in Central America.

Mr. President, the Constitution provides that Congress shall declare war. What is war? I say, forcible occupation of any part of any country by armies is war. You need not qualify it by saying it is an act of war, that it is hostility, or something of that kind - it is war. Sir, when the Emperor of Russia took possession of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia with a military force, merely on the ground claimed to give protection to the Greek church, all Europe declared that war existed. They made no more declarations. It was prosecuted as a war, and terminated as a war, after all its scenes of blood. When Mexico sent an army across the Rio Grande they were driven out, after the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma; but the act they did was to come over with an army, to cross the Rio Grande into a country which claimed; and what was done? Our Congress declared that war existed by the act of Mexico. So we ourselves have indorsed [sic] it, that the occupancy of any part of any country by a military force is war. Now, sir, I have merely this to say: when the Constitution says that Congress shall declare war, I take it, it necessarily implies this: that no war shall exist in this country by the act of the functionaries of this Government unless Congress has passed upon the constitutional causes of that war. When Power is given to them to declare war, there is given to them, and to them only, the power to judge whether there is occasion for a war; and it necessarily follows that if any war exists in this country, not declared upon us from abroad, but by the act of this country, if war exists by any other instrumentality than the declaration of Congress, it exists unconstitutionally.


The people of this country had been, long before the adoption of their form of Constitution, the colonists and descendants of the people of England. They had lived under a Government where the discretion of the king could involve the nation in war when he pleased; they had had enough of that; and accordingly, in the Constitution, they carefully reserved the power to make war to be alone in Congress. When it is said that really our people would be better protected abroad if it was known that the President could at once use force and make war when he pleased, that those Governments would be more careful in the treatment of our citizens, what does that mean? Why is means this: a monarchical form of Government with the power of war in the hands of the Executive, is a desirable Government, better than ours. It is a power needed, and it should be had, in the Executive. Sir, the Constitution is not so; the people thought it otherwise when they made it. But it is said the President can involve this nation in war whenever he pleases, in the exercise of his diplomatic power; he has nothing to do but to send an insolent correspondence to a foreign nation and involve the nation in war. Because the President may, by abusing the power that he has, make a war, is a miserable argument that we should give him the right to make war when he pleases without abusing anything. If he abuses his diplomatic power for such a purpose, he may be impeached. If you tell him he may use his discretion about going to war when one of our men is imprisoned in Mexico, he can go to war and cannot be impeached. It is no reason, because he has the power by abusing his diplomatic functions to involve this nation in war and subject himself to an impeachment, that, therefore, you shall give him the power to make war so that he shall do it without impeachment. [my emphasis]
Imagine having a Congress that could stand up to a President who wanted to, say, invade a country based on falsified intelligence, a country that was no threat to the United States, and an invasion sure to become a nightmare. Just to take a hypothetical example.

Today we have a President that just proposed a new defense budget that is wildly in excess of what is really required for national defense. But instead of exerting themselves to limit the President's and the Pentagon's proposals, they will most likely work hard to increase the budget. And Congressional oversight on the Iraq War, the Afghanistan-Pakistan War, and the various secret military projects that the Cheney-Bush administration had going on Lord-knows-where has been to put it mildly, pitiful.

Just to be clear: Obama does seem to be using his Republican Defense Secretary to start to at least clean up the predator-state style procurement and development processes that Rummy put in place. And that's a very good thing.

While I'm on the subject, I would sure like to see some real limits on the ability of companies to lobby for defense systems. The military budget should be to protect the country, not to provide self-developed markets for corporate boondoggles.

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