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.
The question of whether the President has the constitutional power to authorize covert paramilitary actions or shadow wars against other nations or entities first surfaced at the beginnings of the American republic and continues to vex policymakers today. As early as 1806, in the case of United States v. Smith, two civilians being tried for attempting to launch a paramilitary expedition from the United States against Spanish America claimed that their covert activities had been secretly approved by President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison. Supreme Court Justice William Paterson, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, who presided over the trial, held that the defense’s proffered testimony was immaterial, because the Constitution,
[W]hich measures out the powers and defines the duties of the
president, does not vest in him any authority to set on foot a
military expedition against a nation with which the United States
are at peace. . . . If then, the president knew and approved of the
military expedition . . . it would not justify the defendant . . .
because the president does not possess a dispensing power. Does
he possess the power of making war? That power is exclusively
vested in congress; for by the eighth section of the 1st article of the
constitution, it is ordained, that congress shall have power to
declare war, [and] grant letters of marque and reprisal . . . .
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.”