Rand Paul's Maneuver Against Endless Wars

The Kentucky senator is trying to inject urgency into his effort to reassert congressional control over where the United States fights and kills.

Mary Schwalm / Reuters

Senator Rand Paul is trying to pressure his colleagues in Congress to reassert power over where the United States wages war. Should U.S. troops be fighting in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan? Should American drones carry out lethal strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond? The Kentucky Republican wants the House and Senate to decide questions like that through new votes that force legislators to go on the record so that they are fully accountable to their constituents—and discharging the role enumerated for them in the U.S. Constitution.

In recent years, Congress has instead ceded such questions to successive presidents. For example, President Barack Obama waged war in at least seven countries under the auspices of an Authorization to Use Military Force that legislators passed shortly after 9/11, even though its language specifies “those nations, organizations, or persons” that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001,” a limit that has been oft exceeded.

On Monday, the anniversary of that bygone terrorist attack, Paul published an opinion article laying out why he wants to sunset the authorizations for use of military force that Congress passed prior to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And then he took to the Senate floor in a lonely protest to try to force a vote on his reform amendments.

“Tonight, the Senate is attempting to move forward with the Defense Bill,” he stated on Twitter. “I will object to all procedural motions and amendments unless and until my amendment is made in order and we vote on these wars. An attempt was made to run the clock on the bill overnight. I objected and am now sitting on the floor of the Senate … I sit silently to protest the thousands of American soldiers who have died over the past decade in these wars. We have been there for 16 years. It is time for them to end. It is time for Congress to vote on whether or not they should end.”

He took aim at Senate colleagues on the left and right:

Where is the anti-war left demanding the wars’ end? Where is the constitutional conservative right demanding Congress reclaim its war powers? Hypocrites, they pretend concern over our constitutional duty to declare war and then block any vote on ending any of our seven current wars. I sit nearly alone, but that's fine. I’ll fight by myself if need be. This is too important.

Later, he declared his procedural gambit a success after striking a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that stopped short of guaranteeing a vote:

Senate leaders have agreed not to try to end debate early, and have agreed to four hours of debate under my control to debate these wars. I will continue to fight, and if necessary, object, to continue this debate, secure a vote, and force Congress to do its duty.

The Washington Post was among the few news outlets to cover the matter.

A growing number of lawmakers have been calling for Congress to pass a new AUMF as the war in Afghanistan drags close to its 17th year. But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has largely been alone in his quest to force a deadline on Congress, as the chief agitators for a new AUMF, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), have expressed a firm preference for crafting such a measure in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Paul sits on that panel and its chairman, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), has promised to schedule an AUMF debate soon.

Though Paul’s latest Senate protest was lonely, he is not alone in showing urgency on the issue. Representative Barbara Lee cast the lone vote against the 2001 AUMF, presciently worrying that its language could be stretched to justify expansive warmaking. I once wrote about the letters of support and opposition her vote generated.

She has been diligently working to repeal it ever since.

Outside Congress, voices as ideologically diverse as David Petraeus and Glenn Greenwald have called for revisiting a law that has long been stretched beyond recognition.

Why wouldn’t legislators jealously guard and assert their war power as the Framers of the Constitution anticipated? If Congress does finally assert itself this year, with House members and Senators going on record about where they favor and oppose the use of U.S. military force, voters will finally be able to support or oppose them on that basis. And the gap between elected officials and the public on waging war is wide.