More than 100 lawmakers, including 18 Democrats, have signed a letter that says President Obama would violate the Constitution by striking Syria without first getting authorization from Congress.
A total of 116 lawmakers had signed the letter as of 6 p.m. Wednesday, highlighting bipartisan interest and growing momentum in ensuring a role for Congress in any decision to use force in Syria.
“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” states the letter, spearheaded by Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.).
Speaker of the House John Boehner previously sent the president a letter of his own referring to “the exclusive authority of Congressional authorization under Article I of the Constitution.”
Some of the above could be partisan posturing. Most of the signatories are Republicans, and much of the GOP has taken a broader view of presidential power in the past. For example, during the Libya conflict, Speaker Boehner took President Obama to task for violating the War Powers Act of 1973, even though he had previously called for the Act’s repeal and questioned its constitutionality. Neither party has been a model of consistency on these issues.
But the opportunism of some in the GOP does not change the constitutional duty of the President. It also does not change the practical reality that going to war without a broad political consensus reflected by congressional authorization increases the risk of failure.
Congressional opposition may not matter much politically if the president wins a quick victory with few or no American casualties. But there is a good chance that no such quick and easy success will be achieved in Syria. Of course Obama could also just stop after launching a few missiles or dropping a few bombs regardless of whether such an attack actually changes the Assad regime’s behavior. As I explained here, a small-scale attack might even be constitutional without congressional authorization, since it would not rise to the level of a “war.” But there seems little benefit to launching an attack that doesn’t actually achieve anything. Indeed, such a failure could damage US credibility more than failing to attack in the first place in response to Assad’s crossing of President Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons.