Congress' role in declaring war has become irrelevant

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- They are eating nails and spitting out tacks in the House of Representatives these days.

Angry over the situation in Haiti, some 103 members have decided finally to do something about it.


No, they are not going to pressure the military regime in Port-au-Prince.

They are going to pressure Bill Clinton.


Sixty-four Democrats and thirty-nine Republicans sent a letter to Clinton yesterday demanding that he seek a declaration of war from Congress before he invades Haiti.

". . . the Constitution vests in Congress power to declare war and authorize the use of force," the letter states. "We call on you to proceed accordingly."

Which Bill Clinton has no intention of doing.

Harry Truman didn't do it in Korea. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon didn't do it in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan didn't do it in Lebanon or Grenada. And George Bush didn't do it in the Persian Gulf or Panama.

So if no president has sought a declaration of war since Franklin Roosevelt, how come these members of Congress think Clinton should do so now?

Because the Constitution says so, that's why!

And when members of Congress start invoking the Constitution, you know how desperate they are getting.

"If President Clinton wants to send the Marines into Haiti to change the government there, the Constitution requires that the mission start here," Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., said on Capitol Hill yesterday.


And Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution does say: "The Congress shall have power to declare war. . . ."

But presidents have shown themselves quite able to send U.S. troops into combat by invoking Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 that says: "The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States. . . ."

So why doesn't Congress debate the use of force in Haiti and vote one way or another before President Clinton can take matters into his own hands?

Because when you get right down to it, most members don't want the responsibility.

It is an election year, and they would much rather let Clinton make the decision and take the heat.

"The excuse I heard for why members didn't want to sign [the letter to Clinton] is 'I don't want to decide,' " Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., said. "But no one is above the Constitution, and the responsibility rests here."


And Rep. Ben Gilman, R-N.Y., warmly praised George Bush for having "sought and obtained" the approval of Congress before the Persian Gulf war.

But what happened back then, shows just how pathetic the powers of Congress have become:

While it is true Congress approved the use of force in the gulf on Jan. 12, 1991, by a 52-47 vote in the Senate and a 250-183 vote in the House, Bush had left Congress no choice.

He had already sent 400,000 U.S. troops to the gulf beginning the previous August.

He already had gotten United Nations approval the previous November for the use "of all necessary means" to drive Iraq from Kuwait

And he had already issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait or face armed conflict.


And when Bush finally did go to Congress on Jan. 10, he made clear he could commit U.S. troops without any congressional approval.

But that tiny "victory" is what Congress now clings to in order to show it still has relevance on the issue of war and peace.

But it has no relevance. It should. But it does not. And that's because president after president has taken over the power and gotten away with it.

On "Meet the Press" last Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said Clinton would "consult" with Congress before invading Haiti, "But we think that if we have to exercise the military option, that that authority is there."

So yesterday Representative Skaggs was asked the key question: What would Congress actually do if Clinton went ahead with an invasion without congressional approval?

"I would not like to speculate on what we might do," Skaggs said.


But let me take a wild guess. And say: Nothing.