When Congress Considers Force, It Always Sets a Precedent

Pals: Eisenhower and Rayburn in 1959. (National Journal)

Chafing at seeing the White House held by the other party, House lawmakers gathered in the speaker's office to plan how to get in their licks on the president during what they hoped would be a vigorous debate over his request for a use-of-force authorization.

But this was not 2013, when the speaker feels little obligation to deliver votes for an opposition president. This was Jan. 24, 1955, and Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas felt it was his duty to come through for Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.

"I want to show the world that we have a united country," Rayburn told the rebellious Democratic lawmakers.

It was — dramatically and decidedly — a different age. But even almost six decades later, it has significance in the current debate over President Obama's request for authorization to use force in Syria. The Formosa Resolution, as it was called, was the 20th-century precedent for Obama's request today.

As Congress prepares to vote this week on Obama's request — which is by no means certain to pass — it is worth noting that what lawmakers do now will almost certainly impact use-of-force authorizations for future presidents. There have been more than 200 presidential uses of military force in U.S. history, and only five conflicts in which Congress declared war.

In Rayburn's case, the impact of his actions reverberated long into the future. Disgruntled House Democrats protested that Eisenhower was just trying to make sure they would share the blame if the military mission went awry. "Maybe so," responded Rayburn. "But the country comes first. We're not going to play politics." Even then, some of the Democrats pleaded with Rayburn to at least let them voice their objections during a public debate. But, again, Rayburn shot them down. "We're not going to debate," he declared. "I don't want one word said against this resolution when it gets to the floor of the House."

And almost no words were said, even though the stakes were incredibly high. The resolution would authorize Eisenhower to use whatever force he needed to keep the People's Republic of China — "Red China" in the parlance of the day — from attacking the offshore islands held by the Nationalist Chinese based in Taiwan (known at the time as Formosa, and hence the name of the Formosa Resolution). And this was less than four months after the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sept. 12, 1954, recommended the use of nuclear strikes to take out Chinese airstrips on the mainland.

But Rayburn would not stand for any public debate that suggested disunity behind the commander in chief. On a Monday, Eisenhower requested the authorization. On Tuesday, the House gave it to him by a 409-3 vote. On Friday, the Senate fell in step, 85-3. On Saturday morning, Eisenhower signed it into law. "With his signature," the Associated Press reported at the time, Eisenhower "attained complete, push-button power to fight Red China if necessary in defense of Formosa." With that in hand, Eisenhower jetted off to Augusta, Ga., for a weekend of golf.

Nine years later, Walt W. Rostow, President Johnson's national security adviser, reminded LBJ that he had voted for the Formosa Resolution. That became the model for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the precursor for the conflict in Vietnam.

In that, it was different from the many congressional resolutions authorizing force in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Adams got the first resolution May 28, 1798, to allow him to use force to protect American shipping from France. Thomas Jefferson got one in 1802 targeted against Tripoli, and James Madison got his resolution in 1815 against the Regency of Algiers, again because of attacks on shipping. According to the Congressional Research Service, Madison had asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. But Congress preferred a simpler resolution.

Congress historically has been wary of formal declarations of war, and indeed there have only been five wars that drew declarations: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War in 1846, the war against Spain in 1898, World War I in 1917, and World War II in 1941. The last time Congress declared war was June 5, 1942, against Romania (one of six declarations pertaining to World War II, against Japan, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania.)

The problem for critics of resolutions is that presidents tend to treat them as carrying the same authority as a formal declaration of war. This was certainly the case for Eisenhower and the Formosa Resolution, according to historian Philip J. Briggs in his 1995 book Making Foreign Policy: President-Congress Relations from the Second World War to the Post-Cold War Era.

"Eisenhower interpreted that resolution as being tantamount to a congressional declaration of war," he wrote.

Like Obama today, Eisenhower always claimed he did not need congressional backing for any action he needed to take. But he said at the time that a "suitable Congressional resolution would clearly and publicly establish the authority of the President as Commander-in-Chief to employ the armed forces ... promptly and effectively."

Left unstated at the time was that asking for this resolution was also very much in keeping with what Eisenhower's chief of staff, Sherman Adams, said were the two rules the president always preached: "Don't make mistakes in a hurry, and secondly, if you do, share them."