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Two former secretaries of state are weighing in on the controversial question of how the U.S. goes to war. James Baker and Warren Christopher both served under presidents who took the nation to war, the first George Bush and Bill Clinton.
Over the past year, Baker and Christopher co-chaired a commission to study the division of war powers between Congress and the White House. Today, they released their recommendations. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, they're calling for a new law.
TOM GJELTEN: This privately organized commission avoided any discussion of whether Congress was properly involved in a decision to go to war in Iraq. But that question hangs over any discussion of war powers these days. Warren Christopher says the commission wanted to bring about better judgments about going to war. A commission report recommends the establishment of a special Congressional committee that a future president would have to consult about any significant combat operation.
Mr. WARREN CHRISTOPHER (Former Secretary of State): So that when the president decides he wants to go to war, he has to take into account the independent views of the members of Congress, and not just any members of Congress but this selective group of the leaders of all parties of Congress and of both House and the Senate.
GJELTEN: Members of Congress would then have 30 days to approve the war action. A resolution of disapproval would be subject to a presidential veto. But with a two-thirds vote to override, Congress could effectively block the president from going ahead with the war.
Former Secretary of State James Baker says the current War Powers Act, passed in 1973, never resolved the question of how a U.S. president and U.S. Congress should approach war decisions.
Mr. JAMES BAKER (Former Secretary of State): The statute as written cannot be implemented, hasn't been implemented, and ends up triggering a continuing debate between the executive branch and the legislative branch. It's not effective at best, it's unconstitutional at worst. It's a bad law that ought to be replaced with a good law, something that would work.
GJELTEN: The proper division of war powers has long been debated. But this is an issue where the adversaries haven't been Republicans and Democrats, but presidents on one side and lawmakers on the other. Democrat Lee Hamilton, a former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was a member of this bipartisan War Powers Commission.
Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Former Chairman, House Foreign Affairs Committee): The Congress has tried to amend the War Powers resolution many, many times. Every time, they have failed. And the reason they have failed is because the amendments that have been offered have tilted the constitutional balance one way or the other towards the president or towards the Congress.
GJELTEN: The new War Powers Act, in theory, would favor neither side but only lay out a more efficient procedure by which the president and Congress could work together. Whether it would make much of a difference is a matter of debate. The U.S. Constitution ambiguously says Congress has the right to declare war, but it makes the president the commander in chief.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley advised the War Powers Commission. He notes that the issue has been debated in Washington since the time of Thomas Jefferson.
Professor DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (History, Rice University): Jefferson had asserted the right to commit combat troops for the national interest whenever the chief executive, the president, wanted to. Congress has always felt that they needed to be consulted.
GJELTEN: Not surprisingly, it's a question that tends to come up in the aftermath of unpopular wars when there's a lot of second guessing. The 1973 War Powers Act followed the Vietnam War, and Brinkley says it makes sense to revisit the legislation while members of Congress wonder whether the vote they took in 2002 really authorized a five-year counterinsurgency campaign.
Prof. BRINKLEY: Due to the war in Iraq, maybe the time has come to address it in a way where we don't find ourselves in the kind of predicament we're in right now.
GJELTEN: It still is far from clear whether a majority of Congress and a new president could reach agreement on a new War Powers Act. Secretaries Baker and Christopher have made the recommendations, but will they be available to lobby for new legislation on Capitol Hill? Baker's answer - I live in Houston, Texas.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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