The Framers of the U.S. Constitution assigned to Congress many of the powers of external affairs previously vested in the English king. That allocation of authority is central to America’s democratic and constitutional system. When decisions about armed conflict, whether overt or covert, slip from the elected members of Congress, the principles of self-government and popular sovereignty are undermined. Political power shifts to an executive branch with two elected officials and a long history of costly, poorly conceived military commitments. The Framers anticipated and warned against the hazards of Executive wars. In a republican form of government, the sovereign power rests with the citizens and the individuals they elect to public office. Congress alone was given the constitutional authority to initiate war.
Legislative control over external affairs took centuries to develop. The English Parliament gained the power of the purse in the 1660s to restrain the king, but the power to initiate war remained a monarchical prerogative. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690), John Locke identified three functions of government: legislative, executive, and “federative.” The last embraced “the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions with all persons and communities without the commonwealth.” To Locke, the federative power (what today we call foreign policy) was “always almost united” with the Executive. Any effort to separate the executive and federative powers, he counseled, would invite “disorder and ruin.”
The term “war” is found at four locations in our Constitution. However, the word alone signals nothing about the powers of the two political branches the Constitution creates, executive and legislative, and nowhere in the Constitution does the term “war powers” appear. At some point in our history, the word “powers” was coupled with “war.” There has ensued a continuing argument about who, as between the President and Congress, owns those powers. But little or no attention has been given to just what powers are being discussed, and no attention at all has been given to what the Constitution itself says about those powers. Yet, a close examination of the Constitution readily reveals the answers. Congress owns all of the powers to create and field a military (no matter how the powers are defined), and the President has the executive authority. The involvement of the United States in multiple military conflicts, ultimately at the behest of the President and not the Congress, is evidence that currently both the executive and legislative branches operate contrary to the mandates of the Constitution. Thus, the notion of war powers must be reconsidered.
Words are imperfect instruments for conveying ideas, and interpreting the intended meaning of words is often a challenge, especially when more than two centuries have passed since the words were written and their meanings have evolved over the years. For example, the terms “executive power” and “declare war” had widely understood meanings when the Constitution was written. In his classic 1922 study, The Control of American Foreign Relations, Quincy Wright explained that “when the constitutional convention gave ‘executive power’ to the President, the foreign relations power was the essential element in the grant, but they carefully protected this power from abuse by provisions for senatorial or congressional veto.” Wright referred to the writings of Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone5 as “the political Bibles of the constitutional fathers,”6 adding: “In foreign affairs . . . the controlling
force is the reverse of that in domestic legislation. The initiation and development of details is with the President, checked only by the veto of the Senate or Congress upon completed proposals.”