To the Members of the 112th Congress:
As we search for ways to restore constitutional self-government, our attention gravitates to questions of war and peace. Nothing is more urgent for a country than such questions, and yet what the Constitution says about war powers has been a source of controversy for almost as long as America has existed as a sovereign country.
The controversy seems to be rooted in the nature of the war power itself. What kind of power is it? The political thinker John Locke, often consulted and quoted by the American Founders, wrote that "legislative power" is the power of a people to make the "established, settled, known law, allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them." As we know, Article I gives Congress "all legislative power herein granted." At the same time, Article II vests the president with the "executive Power," which is the power to give the law what Locke calls its "due execution." Is the war power a legislative or executive power?
The Founders' answer seems to have been "neither" – or "both." Besides the legislative, executive, and judicial powers that we are all familiar with, there is another power of government that Locke describes as the "federative power." This "contains the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions with all persons and communities [outside] the commonwealth." The federative power is something like the broad power of dealing with foreign affairs as a whole.
Our Constitution appears to divide what we might call the foreign affairs power – of which the war power is a part – between Congress and the president. On the one hand, Article I gives Congress the power to regulate commerce "with foreign Nations," "[t]o define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations," and, of course, "[t]o declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water."
On the other hand, in Article II the president is "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States," has "Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties… and appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls," and "shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers."
So Congress generally seems to have the aspects of the foreign affairs power that are legislative in character while the president has those that are executive in nature. That is, Congress has the powers that relate to making rules that govern the legal status of the U.S. or its citizens vis-à-vis other countries. At the same time, the president's foreign affairs powers concern matters that, as Alexander Hamilton says in Federalist 70, require "[d]ecision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch."
When we are trying to understand a particular application of the war power, then, and where the letter of the Constitution does not resolve the issue, the principles of the Constitution seem to invite us to ask: Is this exercise of war power legislative or executive in character? For example, if the president were to use American troops in such a way as to initiate hostilities against another country, under the law of nations he would be changing the legal status of the U.S. in its relations with that country from peace to war, which is a legislative power that he does not possess. But as James Madison said at the Philadelphia Convention, if the president were to use troops to "repel a sudden attack," he would be using a power that requires "decision" and "dispatch," which could only be done by an executive. We could use this same standard to judge many other exercises of the war power by the president and Congress.
This standard might have helped Congress and the general public, for example, give more serious constitutional consideration to the President's actions in Libya some time back. Most of the criticism focused on whether the military intervention was wise, not on whether the President had the constitutional power to intervene without authorization from Congress. However delicate or difficult such questions may be, our most basic civic responsibility seems to oblige us to address them.
Contrast our relative silence with the constitutional seriousness of President James Madison's appeal to Congress and the American people concerning war with Britain in 1812. Madison did not decide the issue himself; he knew that he did not have the power. More importantly, he knew that the people and their representatives needed to have open constitutional deliberation on such a momentous question. Self-government required it. Here are his words:
Whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations and these accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events… is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government. In recommending it to their early deliberations I am happy in the assurance that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils of a virtuous, a free, and a powerful nation.
In our efforts to revive constitutional self-government in America, we – Congress and the American people – certainly must focus, as have many of these letters, on the proper foundation and extent of the federal government's powers in domestic affairs. But we must also strive to be "enlightened and patriotic councils" in constitutional questions of war and peace – none are more fundamental to our freedom.