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Thomas Gallatin / January 9, 2020

Capitol Hill War Powers Dust-Up — Symbolism Over Substance

GOP senators Lee and Paul fight for Congress following Trump admin Soleimani briefing.

Much of the mainstream media made hay over comments from two Republican senators — Mike Lee (UT) and Rand Paul (KY) — following the Trump administration’s briefing of lawmakers over the airstrike that took out Iran’s top terrorist, Gen. Qasem Soleimani. “It was probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate,” Lee complained, adding that he found the responses from administration officials “insulting and demeaning.” Though Lee supported taking out Soleimani, he declared he’s now in favor of the Democrats’ recently introduced resolution on war powers, which is designed to prevent President Donald Trump from further military action against Iran without explicit authorization from Congress.

However, other Republican senators disagreed with Lee and Paul’s assessment. Marco Rubio (FL) argued that the brief was “compelling,” before asserting, “Anyone who walks out & says they aren’t convinced action against #Soleimani was justified is either never going to be convinced or just oppose everything Trump does.”

But, again, Lee argues he’s not questioning the strike itself. “I support the president, and I applaud what he’s done. More than any other president in my lifetime, this president has respected and restrained his use of commander-in-chief power afforded to him under Article II of the Constitution.”

So, what’s going on here? There are two important things to note. First, both Lee and Paul are well known for their libertarian bent, which informs their noninterventionist instincts — and those instincts arise from their laudable concerns for adherence to the constitutional separation of powers. The trouble is, as we have repeatedly argued, Congress long ago abdicated much of its war power to the executive branch. That was most particularly done via the 1973 War Powers Act, which ostensibly was designed to rein in the executive branch’s authority to engage in armed conflict. Yet, in practice, the law has proved to be a convenient way for Congress to avoid political accountability by passing its own responsibilities to the executive branch.

Second, Wednesday’s briefing was not designed or intended as a forum for senators to carry on a debate over the question of war powers. Its purpose, as Rubio cogently pointed out, was to inform members of Congress on the specifics surrounding the decision to take out Soleimani. Administration officials weren’t going into the meeting with the mindset of defending the question of war powers; their job was to explain and defend the merits of the decision. It’s a significant distinction that the mainstream media failed to note.

Given the fact that the House will vote on a war powers resolution that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and company ridiculously argue is necessary to prevent Trump from starting a war with Iran, it’s understandable to view Lee and Paul’s comments as only lending support to the Democrats’ anti-Trump efforts. However, the reality is that even if the Senate were to pass the Democrats’ resolution, it would do so by a slim margin and would not be able to overturn Trump’s certain veto. Lee and Paul know this, so their comments serve more as a symbolic expression of their principles than any serious threat to limit Trump’s ability to confront Iran.

Footnote: Regarding the dispute over Iranian missile funding… Trump said during his remarks Wednesday, “The missiles fired … at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” Mark Alexander noted yesterday that this is essentially correct, as it falls under the “take Trump seriously, not literally” maxim. Money is fungible, as even The Washington Post “fact checker” conceded … before proceeding to take Trump literally in order to “disprove” his assertion. But anyone with any sense knew what Trump meant. Barack Obama gave the Iranians billions of dollars in appeasement cash, which, along with his overall policy toward Iran, made those missiles possible. No one will find an invoice specifically tying those Obama bucks to those missiles, but Trump means to say those days are over.

(Updated.)

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