Barack Obama met for an hour in Chicago on Thursday with James Baker and Warren Christopher about how to achieve more meaningful consultation between the president and Congress on the use of military force. The former secretaries of state are the co-chairs of a bipartisan commission that recommended earlier this year that the 1973 War Powers Act be replaced by a new law that would mandate closer cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The War Powers Act is "ineffective at best; unconstitutional at worst," Baker said back in July at a press conference announcing the recommendations of the National War Powers Commission. "The rule of law is undermined and is damaged when the main statute in this vital policy area is regularly questioned or ignored."
Baker and Christopher indicated at their July 8 press conference on Capitol Hill that they were focused on the future and not the past, including the decision to go to war in Iraq which was authorized by a vote in Congress.
The former secretaries of state carefully sidestepped which previous U.S. military actions did not exhibit consultation between the executive and legislative branches.
"We have tried very hard not to call balls and strikes on past history," said Christopher.
A member of the commission’s staff, however, was more forthcoming in an interview with ABC News.
If the War Powers Act had been replaced along the lines advocated by Baker and Christopher, the president’s consultation of Congress would have been boosted during U.S. military actions in Kosovo, Panama, Lebanon, and Grenada, according to the commission staff member who spoke with ABC News.
The War Powers Act, which was passed in response to the Vietnam War, was intended to formalize a role for Congress in making the decision whether to go to war. Critics of the law believe that it has had the unintended effect of giving presidents free rein to conduct any military action for 90 days. After this window, the War Powers Act calls for the president to terminate the military engagement if Congress has not authorized it.
The War Powers Act is viewed as unconstitutional by many in the legal community because it attempts to give Congress the power to overrule the executive’s decision to go to war through the absence of action rather than through an affirmative vote. Baker and Christopher are hoping to address this perceived defect by requiring Congress to vote one way or the other within 30 days of the start of armed conflict.
The proposed statute would repeal the 1973 War Powers Act and replace it with a new statute providing that the president shall consult with Congress before deploying U.S. troops into "significant armed conflict" lasting, or expected to last, more than a week.
Congress would then have 30 days to vote on a measure approving the military action. If the resolution to approve were to fail in either the House or Senate, any member of Congress could then introduce a measure to disapprove, which would be voted on within five days. The proposed statute says that a joint resolution of disapproval will have the force of law only if presented to the president and signed, or if his or her veto is overridden. The practical fallout is that Congress could stop a president’s war only with a two-thirds vote in both houses overriding a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval.
The War Powers Consultation Act of 2009 would create a 20-member Joint Congressional Consultation Committee which would include leaders of the House and Senate from both parties as well as the chair and ranking members of key House and Senate committees covering foreign affairs, armed services, intelligence, and appropriations. The joint committee would have a standing bipartisan staff and receive the same intelligence shown the president.
"The way for the president to get independent advice is to go to the Congress," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a member of the commission.
The proposed statute specifically states that the president would not be required to consult Congress before taking action to repel attacks, or to prevent imminent attacks, on the United States. Other military actions not covered would include covert operations, humanitarian missions launched in response to natural disasters, or "limited acts of reprisal" against terrorists or states that sponsor terrorism.
When Obama’s campaign was asked about the commission’s proposal back in January, a spokesman praised the effort to spur closer consultation without endorsing the specifics of the proposal. "Senator Obama commends this bipartisan study for advocating that the President consult Congress more closely on issues of critical national importance like the use of military force," said Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro.
Thursday’s meeting with Baker and Christopher is "being held at the request of the commission members," according to Obama’s transition office.
Obama’s meeting with Baker and Christopher has now concluded. It lasted for an hour. Hamilton joined the meeting by phone.
Following the discussion, Obama foreign policy advisor Denis McDonough released this statement:
"President-elect Obama met with Secretaries Baker and Christopher for an hour this afternoon in Chicago. Lee Hamilton joined the meeting by phone. Their conversation covered a range of important topics, including the recent study on war powers co-chaired by Secretaries Baker and Christopher. President-elect Obama expressed his appreciation for their work and said he would review the Commission’s proposal. The President -elect underscored his commitment to working closely with Congress with bipartisan participation."