I Declare War

Presidents have been going to war without Congress for years

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

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Despite the Constitution, for nearly 200 years, presidents have sent the U.S. military into conflicts without first consulting Congress. Contrary to popular belief, this trend predates the imperialist presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent a small fleet to protect and defend U.S. military and merchant ships from acts of piracy by the Barbary States before he asked Congress. Although Congress later gave Jefferson authorization to have those vessels seize any ships and goods that posed a threat, they never voted on a formal declaration of war in the conflict that became the First Barbary War, lasting from 1801 to 1805.

Act First, Ask Later

Throughout the 1800s, presidents continued to take military action first and ask permission later. In 1810, James Madison ordered the Army to seize West Florida territory without consulting Congress. General Andrew Jackson led three invasions into Florida without asking permission from Congress or the president. Jackson would later continue the same behavior as president, repeatedly sending the military to force the hand of any Indian tribe that would not relocate. One of these operations authorized by President Jackson, without Congress, was the forced removal of the Seminoles in Florida. Almost 9,000 soldiers were involved. It became the largest U.S. military operation since the War of 1812.

Later, the bloodiest conflict on U.S. soil, the American Civil War, went undeclared by Congress. During the 20th Century, forces were sent by various presidents into countries such as Nicaragua to suppress rebellions without asking Congress. During the Cold War, dodging Congress not only continued, it increased. For example, the Korean War, which the U.S. was involved in for three years, was never officially authorized by Congress.

War Powers Resolution

After the Vietnam War, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 was passed as an effort to limit the President's power. However, the bill actually increased the President's ability to use the military in a variety of situations without asking for Congressional approval.

According to the War Powers Resolution, the President must notify Congress within 48 hours of sending military forces into action. Armed forces can stay engaged for no more than 60 days, with an additional 30 day withdrawal period unless there is a formal Congressional authorization of military force or a declaration of war.

Resolution Violations

Since the War Powers Resolution was passed, presidents have been accused of violating it. In 1999, President Bill Clinton was accused of being in violation of the bill over the Kosovo bombings. In 2011, President Obama's failure to get Congressional approval for U.S. military actions in Libya raised accusations from both parties.

The issue came up again in Sept. 2014, when President Barack Obama said that he had authorized airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and would work with allies in the region to retake regions under ISIS control and decimate the terrorist group. He was clear that he did not plan to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS. Obama authorized the airstrikes under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force law, which allowed President George W. Bush to use "necessary and appropriate force" against those involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Obama did ask Congress to authorize money to fund and train moderate rebel groups in Syria to aid in the fight against ISIS, which it did in late September 2014.

Presidents have sent troops into battle without authorization from Congress for hundreds of years even though critics and politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to argue that it's unconstitutional. In fact, recent laws, such as the War Powers Resolution and the Authorization for Use of Military Force, have actually given presidents more ways to engage the military without working with Congress.

—Jennie Wood