Why Congress Owes Us a Vote on War in Libya

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A resolution is vital for a reason that transcends the Constitution: It would give the American people a say

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United Nations officials say 800 refugees have drowned trying to escape the fighting in Libya. If it continues, the UN Aid chief predicts, the country will run out of food. Our allies may be engaged in revenge killings. The Christian Science Monitor calculates that the cost to the American people is already many billions of dollars, and, whatever the total, it grows with every day that our military plays an active role in the conflict. And the dubious veneer of legality cited by war hawks is about to run out.

Despite the enormity of the stakes, however, Congress is uninterested in either endorsing or ending our involvement, despite the fact that the Constitution vests it with the authority to declare war. Senator John Kerry, hawkish on Libya, says he is unlikely to seek formal authorization for the mission. Does anyone other than these guys care? "I'm surprised that no one's pushed that issue harder," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Dave Weigel. "I'm comfortable with the president's authority, quite frankly, but from a War Powers perspective, it's probably something that you want to consider."

Why not do it yourself, Sen. Graham? The War Powers Act isn't even the most compelling reason for the legislative branch to act! As a constitutional law professor turned United States senator once said, "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Admittedly, that's old news, and apparently, "The Constitution forbids it" isn't sufficient these days as an anti-war argument. As it happens, however, there are less discussed but equally vital prudential reasons for Congress to take up this matter. In our system, it is the House of Representatives that is closest to the people. It is impossible for the average citizen to lobby the president and extremely difficult to get the attention of a U.S. senator, but it is comparatively easy to contact your local representative, even in person, if you put a little bit of effort into scheduling a meeting or cornering her at an event. In ducking this issue, members of Congress are depriving their constituents of representation on the matter of war, a function the Framers clearly intended.

A failure to go on record for or against war in Libya also makes the federal government less accountable to its citizens. Come Election 2012, the current mission may turn out better than expected, or perhaps we're in for an utter fiasco. Either way, won't you want to know on Election Day where the incumbents on your ballot stood before they knew the outcome and positioned themselves accordingly? Isn't that a potentially important factor in determining the candidate you back?

It makes sense that members of Congress would prefer to defer responsibility to the Obama administration. But the citizenry should demand better. Our system of government assumes that folks in each branch are going to jealously guard the power given them, if not try to exceed it. Legislators so concerned with politics that he or she is willing to cede input on a matter as grave as war disgrace their office. And you can tell them so yourself by clicking here.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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