Rolling Again the Imperial Presidency? Joe Biden and the Way forward for U.S. Warfare Powers


In April 2019, Congress forged a historic vote. For the primary time, each chambers made use of the Warfare Powers Decision (WPR, Public Legislation 93-148), a decision handed within the waning days of the Vietnam Warfare to revive congressional authority in deciding when the nation goes to warfare, and directed President Trump to cease U.S. participation within the warfare in Yemen. Though Congress in the end did not override Trumps presidential veto, just one yr later, Congress acted upon the WPR once more. This time, Congress sought to limit President Trump’s means to make use of pressure in opposition to Iran and determined to ‘direct the elimination of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran that haven’t been licensed by Congress’ (U.S. Congress 2020). Once more, President Trump vetoed the decision, stating that the decision’s understanding of restricted presidential energy ‘is inaccurate’, as a result of ‘the Structure acknowledges that the president should be capable to anticipate our adversaries’ subsequent strikes and take swift and decisive motion in response’ (Trump 2020). Then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden urged Congress to override President Trump’s veto, nevertheless, and to say itself in opposition to presidential war-making. In his assertion, Biden condemned President Trump’s veto and ‘his contempt for the U.S. Congress as a co-equal department of presidency’ and added that, as president, he ‘will work intently with Congress on choices to make use of pressure, not dismiss congressional laws’ (Biden 2020).

At this level, it’s value remembering President Barack Obama, who, as presidential candidate, promised fairly an identical method to the politics of army interventions and the position of Congress. In an interview with the Boston Globe in December 2007, Obama acknowledged that the president ‘doesn’t have energy beneath the Structure to unilaterally authorize a army assault in a scenario that doesn’t contain stopping an precise or imminent menace to the nation’ (Obama 2007). Nonetheless, he acted in any other case. In the course of the army intervention in Libya 2011, Obama adopted the authorized interpretation of Harold H. Koh, Authorized Adviser to the State Division, in line with which the army intervention in Libya was in step with the WPR and didn’t require congressional authorization, ‘as a result of U.S. army operations are distinct from the form of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Decision’s 60 day termination provision’ (U.S. Division of State 2011: 25). Following this interpretation, which the New York Instances referred to as ‘authorized acrobatics’, the president may unilaterally wage warfare in opposition to a rustic so long as the USA was solely engaged in air strikes and anticipated no or few casualties, subsequently strengthening the conviction that presidents possess inherent warfare powers independently from Congress (Pious 2007; Yoo 2005)

Though the framers of the structure acknowledged that within the occasion of a sudden assault the President as ‘Commander in Chief’ had the obligation to guard the mainland and the troops of the USA, the ‘President by no means obtained a common energy to deploy troops each time and wherever he thought greatest, and the framers didn’t authorize him to take the nation into full-scale warfare or to mount an offensive assault in opposition to one other nation’, in line with Louis Fisher (2013: 8-9), one of many main students on U.S. warfare powers. It was through the presidency of Richard Nixon and the ultimate part of the Vietnam Warfare in 1973 that legislators realized they wanted to say themselves in opposition to a presidency which usurped an increasing number of powers from Congress and led the nation into an undeclared warfare.

In an effort to roll again what Arthur Schlesinger (2005 [1973]) has termed and what later has turn out to be broadly generally known as the ‘Imperial Presidency’, Congress adopted the WPR in opposition to Nixon’s veto and supplied itself with a number of procedures and legislative measures to restrict presidential war-making and restore the ‘steadiness of energy’ envisaged by the framers of the structure. Two measures are particularly necessary and noteworthy: first, part 5(b) of the WPR directs the president to terminate any use of U.S. armed forces in hostilities which haven’t been licensed or declared by Congress inside sixty days, and second, part 5(c) supplies Congress with the power to direct the president to take away armed forces engaged in hostilities outdoors the territory of the USA by a concurrent decision which, in contrast to different resolutions, doesn’t require presidential approval. Although this mechanism has been up to date to comprise joint resolutions as properly, since a Supreme Courtroom ruling deemed legislative vetoes by concurrent resolutions unconstitutional, neither the Home nor the Senate handed such laws till April 2019, and Congress failed to totally make the most of its devices to curtail presidential energy within the area of army interventions.

The query this text tries to reply is subsequently easy: will Joe Biden, because the 46th president, observe Trump’s footsteps and toss away his promise to acknowledge Congress as a ‘co-equal department of presidency’, as Obama did in Libya 2011, or will lawmakers efficiently reign within the ‘Imperial Presidency’ and prepare for a brand new relationship between the presidency and Congress? In different phrases, what can we count on for the way forward for executive-legislative relations relating to using army pressure?

The Historic Document: Joe Biden and the Powers to Wage Warfare

As president, Biden could have a congressional report in contrast to most different presidents earlier than him. As one in every of 17 presidents, Biden served within the Senate earlier than, the place he represented Delaware from 1973 to 2009. This may make him the president with the longest time within the Senate, superseding Lyndon B. Johnson who represented Texas from 1949–1961. Throughout his decades-long tenure as senator, Biden not solely voted on the WPR in 1973, however was concerned within the authorization of each main army intervention of the USA up till 2009, when Biden grew to become vice-president of the USA. This consists of the warfare in Afghanistan and the next warfare in Iraq in addition to a number of army interventions throughout and after the Chilly Warfare. In truth, Biden voted to authorize the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, together with the Gulf Warfare in 1991 and the aerial warfare in Kosovo in opposition to Serbia in 1999, though this authorization didn’t turn out to be regulation as a result of it did not go the Home of Representatives by a vote of 213:213 in April 1999.

Apart from these main authorizations, Biden was concerned in lots of different votes concerning using army pressure, lots of them limiting presidential war-making. In truth, Congress can’t solely limit the president’s energy to wage warfare by way of its 1973 WPR, however by way of different legislative means as properly. These embody funding limitations in addition to limitations on the scope and period of using army pressure, or by offering the situations beneath which U.S. troops will be deployed in hostilities by way of annual appropriation and authorization payments, which act as automobiles for restrictions by way of their relevance as ‘should go’ legislations (Howell/Pevehouse 2007: 10-17, for an outline of congressional votes on using pressure overseas see this report of the Congressional Analysis Service).

Contemplating these alternative routes to restrict presidential war-making, a barely totally different image of Joe Biden emerges, one by which he not solely licensed presidential war-making on many situations, but additionally one by which he was keen to curtail it as properly.

Determine 1: Congressional Votes of Joe Biden on the Use of Army Power Overseas

Notice: Votes on motions to desk a decision have been inverted, in an effort to make them comparable with votes explicitly for limitations on presidential warfare powers. SoC stands for non-binding Sense of Congress resolutions. The whole listing of votes will be obtained from the writer.

The determine above plots Joe Biden’s authorization votes on every main occasion involving using army pressure by the U.S. over time in addition to the other ways Congress can restrict the president’s energy to wage warfare.[1] Three conclusions will be drawn from this depiction. First, though Biden voted to authorize nearly each main use of pressure, there are three situations by which Biden didn’t authorize using army pressure: the army interventions in Lebanon 1983, in Panama 1989 and in Iraq 1991. In the course of the intervention in Lebanon 1983, for instance, Biden voted in opposition to a compromise decision that licensed the continued deployment of U.S. forces in Lebanon for an extra 18 months beneath the WPR. As a substitute, he voted for 2 amendments which might have prolonged the sixty days deadline of the WPR for one more sixty days and decided that hostilities in line with the WPR exist, subsequently forcing the president to stick to the constraints of the WPR (each amendments didn’t make it into the decision and died through the legislative course of). After all, this doesn’t show that Biden opposed using army pressure in Lebanon per se, nevertheless it does present that Biden was actually conscious of the broad timeline Congress would have given President Reagan by way of its compromise decision.

Second, though Biden appears to have been reluctant to set binding restrictions on ongoing army operations, there are two instances the place Biden voted to restrict presidential war-making. In 1995 Biden voted for a decision that may have licensed President Clinton to make use of armed forces to implement the Dayton Settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however just for ‘roughly one yr’ (U.S. Congress 1995), whereas in 2007, Biden voted for a binding timeline to withdraw American troops from Iraq, revising his resolution in 2002 to authorize the Iraq Warfare. Particularly the Iraq vote is necessary as Biden was the Chair of the International Relations Committee through the authorization vote in October 2002 and one of many key Democrats who supported the AUMF, resulting in Biden’s ‘checkered historical past with Iraq’ (Golshan/Ward 2019).

Third, although Biden appears to have been keen to restrict presidential war-making for Republican in addition to Democratic presidents – from 14 votes to limit the president, six have been beneath Republican and eight beneath Democratic presidents – Biden largely shunned utilizing the facility of the purse to set limitations. The determine above reveals that whereas Biden was persistently keen to vote for non-binding funding limitations by way of Sense of Congress (SoC) resolutions, the one occasion the place Biden set a minor limitation by way of the funding of army operations occurred through the army intervention in Somalia 1993, when Biden voted to undertake an modification that permitted using funds for the mission in Somalia after March 31, 1994 solely, if the president sought and Congress supplied particular authorization.

Admittedly, the query stays if we are able to infer from Senator Joe Biden’s earlier voting habits how Biden will act as a president, outfitted with broad presidential (warfare) powers? Hendrickson (2010, 205) argues for the early Obama administration for instance that Obama’s and Biden’s ‘earlier views on congressional warfare powers will not be […] the guiding constitutional rules that form their relationship with the Congress’, as a result of ‘as for earlier presidents, assertiveness as commander in chief is an institutional sample within the conduct of the manager department’. Certainly, Obama accepted these institutional patterns through the Libya intervention and acted unilaterally with out congressional assist.

Nevertheless, in 2020, two issues stand in favor of Joe Biden’s promise to acknowledge Congress as a ‘co-equal department of presidency’. First, Obama realized from the congressional opposition to his unilateral motion in Libya that congressional assist is certainly an important asset in war-making. In 2013, Obama determined to hunt congressional approval for a army strike in retaliation for a chemical weapons assault by the Syrian authorities, breaking with the custom of utilizing army pressure with out congressional permission. Second, in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Biden claimed that he strongly argued in opposition to an intervention in Libya inside the administration and, because the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ revealed, was one of many ardent opponents of Obama’s resolution in 2009 for a troop surge in Afghanistan. Subsequently, it appears probably that Biden realized from the Libya debacle and is aware of about Congress’ position and affect on public assist for army interventions (Howell/Pevehouse 2007; Kriner 2018).

The Different Facet of the Coin: Congressional Motion to Restrict Presidential Warfare Powers

That presidents normally prevail in overseas coverage is just not solely a consequence of ‘presidential rapacity’, which, in line with Biden’s legislative report, is much less prone to happen throughout his presidency, however from ‘congressional pusillanimity’ as properly, as Schlesinger (2005: x) famous in his seminal work on the ‘Imperial Presidency’. In truth, if Congress actually needs to revive the constitutional steadiness between Congress and the presidency, lawmakers not solely must make use of their implicit devices to regulate and verify presidential energy, akin to hearings and congressional investigations that may deter the presidency from any unilateral actions, but additionally Congress’ actual legislative powers. Apart from utilizing these powers in potential confrontations that loom forward for the subsequent presidential time period, such because the potential unilateral use of pressure in opposition to Iran which Congress not too long ago tried to dam, two foremost legislative mechanisms are clearly in want of enchancment. First, the Authorization for Use of Army Power (AUMF, Public Legislation 107-40) from 2001, which was initially adopted to authorize the warfare in Afghanistan after 9/11 however has recently turn out to be a catch-all legitimation for nearly any use of army pressure, and second, the WPR itself, which has did not successfully relocate energy again from the president to Congress since its adoption in 1973.

The AUMF 2001, which was adopted by Congress solely three days after the terrorist assaults of 9/11, licensed President Bush ‘to make use of all needed and acceptable pressure in opposition to these nations, organizations, or individuals he determines deliberate, licensed, dedicated, or aided the terrorist assaults’ (U.S. Congress 2001), giving Bush and his successors in workplace a clean cheque to make use of pressure in opposition to terrorism wherever they wished. Though a number of resolutions tried to repair this imbalance and geared toward reasserting the position of Congress in deciding the place army pressure ought to be carried out, none of those legislative measures have made it by way of Congress, leaving the 2001 AUMF, in addition to the 2002 AUMF in opposition to Iraq, nonetheless in place.

Nevertheless, two latest makes an attempt are noteworthy. First, in 2018, Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) got here up with a joint decision to repeal the 2002 AUMF and exchange the 2001 AUMF with an up to date and extra tailor-made authorization. In keeping with their 2018 AUMF proposal, the president would have been licensed ‘to make use of all needed and acceptable pressure in opposition to the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’ (U.S. Congress 2018), in addition to its related forces. Throughout and after hearings within the International Relations and the Homeland Safety and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Administration, lawmakers and specialists sharply criticized the proposed AUMF, nevertheless. The brand new AUMF, the opponents argued, would cement the established order and provides Trump and his successors the power to unilaterally wage warfare wherever they favored. Finally, the decision, in addition to a proposal by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in response to the criticism couldn’t garner sufficient assist to make its manner onto the ground of the Senate.

In the course of the expiring latest legislative interval, a promising try has been made by a number of lawmakers within the Home of Representatives, who got here up with a bipartisan compromise decision (Herr et al. 2020). The brand new decision would depart the 2001 AUMF in place, however would restrict its scope to ongoing hostilities and prohibit future makes use of of pressure to be justified with it. In keeping with the bipartisan coalition, which tries to revive congressional authority, the decision ‘is neither an try to repeal the authorization nor an announcement on present or earlier U.S. army actions’, however ‘would put constitutional guardrails on the additional enlargement of an nearly two-decades-old authorization’ (Brown et al. 2020).

Though the proposal would depart future presidents with ample room of maneuver and although it reaches out to a Republican managed Senate and unifies totally different ideological positions on using army pressure as properly, its prospects for achievement are dim. Even when Biden would assist, or a minimum of not impede, such a congressional effort, there are not any indicators of rising bipartisanship within the close to future, which proved to be a big situation for congressional motion (Böller/Müller 2018). Moreover, within the gentle of the rampant Covid pandemic and its financial penalties in the USA, updating an nearly 20 years outdated laws is unlikely to be on high of Congress’ political agenda.

The identical destiny will probably be true for an replace of the 1973 WPR. The most recent try to reform the WPR was made by Senator Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) and Consultant Anthony Brown (D-MD), who launched the Warfare Powers Reform Decision. This legislative try goals at amending the WPR with a brand new part that may restrict new AUMF’s to a most of two years and prohibit using appropriated funds for the unauthorized introduction or use of United States Armed Forces into hostilities. Nevertheless, the reform decision would retain the sixty-days deadline, which permits the president to make use of army pressure for sixty days with out congressional authorization. The sixty-days clock has been recognized as one of many main issues of the WPR, as a result of, in line with Tess Bridgeman and Stephen Pomper, it ‘has been handled by each of the political branches as roughly free time throughout which the president is permitted to launch operations’ (Bridgeman/Pomper 2020). However the reasonable modifications proposed, the reform decision has not managed to achieve any legislative monitor because it was launched a yr in the past and it stays to be seen if the brand new Congress will decide up on this method.


This text has argued that two elements are essential for turning again the ‘Imperial Presidency’ and for restoring Congress’ constitutional rights and duties relating to using army pressure. First, presidents want to actually acknowledge Congress as a co-equal department of presidency and act accordingly, and second, Congress basically and lawmakers particularly should not solely look ahead to presidential generosity, however confidently use their constitutional powers to determine binding limits on the president’s energy to wage warfare. An evaluation of Biden’s historical past as a senator in addition to latest legislative measures reveals that the prospects for an emancipated relationship between the Congress and the presidency might need risen slightly bit.

Biden’s report as a senator signifies that he’s not solely conscious of the issue of an ever-expanding presidency, but additionally of Congress’ impartial powers relating to using army pressure. Throughout his decades-long tenure within the Senate, Biden repeatedly voted to restrict presidential war-making each by way of the WPR and Congress’ different legislative means to place limitations on army operations. As well as, Biden served as vice chairman through the Obama administration and witnessed first-hand Congress’ opposition when Obama contradicted his personal guarantees that presidents can’t wage warfare with out congressional approval through the army intervention in Libya 2011.

Restoring congressional standing depends upon repelling the 2001 and 2002 AUMF in addition to reforming the 1973 WPR. Not solely do the practically two-decades outdated AUMF’s act as catch-all legitimations for ongoing and potential army operations, the historical past of the WPR additionally reveals its deficiencies in restoring Congress’ position in deciding if army pressure is getting used. Although the outlook for repelling each AUMF’s and for reforming the WPR appear to be dim, lawmakers have signaled over the past two years that they’re keen to implement their constitutional and legislative rights. It stays to be seen if enough Republicans and Democrats are keen to cross the aisle sooner or later or if the reasonable bipartisanship we’ve seen within the final two years ends together with the presidency of Donald Trump.


[1] These embody the Vietnam Warfare 1973-1976, using army pressure in Lebanon 1982-1983, the U.S.-Invasion in Grenada 1983 and in Panama 1989-1990, the Gulf Warfare in 1991, the makes use of of army pressure in Somalia 1992-1994, in Haiti 1993-1994, in Bosnia 1993-1995, and in Kosovo 1999, in addition to the wars in Afghanistan 2001-2008 and in Iraq 2003-2008.


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