A War Over War Powers?

GWU law professor Jonathan Turley has filed suit against the Obama Administration on behalf of several members of Congress, including Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Walter Jones (R-NC).  The complaint alleges that President Obama acted unlawfully by going to war in Libya  without Congressional authorization and seeks, among other things, an order that the military action in Libya constitutes a war that was undertaken without Congressional authorization, as required by the Constitution, and an injunction ”to end the violations alleged above, including but not limited to an order to suspend military operations in Libya absent a declaration of war from Congress.”

It is extremely unlikely this lawsuit will go anywhere.  I would be very surprised were it not dismissed on political questions grounds, and simply flabbergasted were a court to actually order that the U.S. military suspend operations in Libya (or anywhere else, for that matter).  If Congress feels that the President has overstepped his authority, then Congress has to act directly, conducting oversight and (if necessary) cutting off funds for operations it seeks to stop.

I doubt Congress will use the power of the purse, but a milder confrontation over the war power is possible.  Speaker of the House John Boehner recently called upon the Adminsitration to seek Congressional approval of the Libya operations or explain why the War Powers Act is inapplicable.  As Charlie Savage reports in the NYT, the Obama Administration has taken the latter course, telling Congress that this is not the sort of operation covered by the Act.

“We are acting lawfully,” said Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser, who expanded on the administration’s reasoning in a joint interview with White House Counsel Robert Bauer.

The two senior administration lawyers contended that American forces have not been in “hostilities” at least since April 7, when NATO took over leadership in maintaining a no-flight zone in Libya, and the United States took up what is mainly a supporting role — providing surveillance and refueling for allied warplanes — although unmanned drones operated by the United States periodically fire missiles as well.

They argued that United States forces are at little risk in the operation because there are no American troops on the ground and Libyan forces are unable to exchange meaningful fire with American forces. They said that there was little risk of the military mission escalating, because it is constrained by the United Nations Security Counsel resolution that authorized use of air power to defend civilians.

“We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” Mr. Koh said. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped, or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”

The article also contains this interesting tidbit, which raises the possibility that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel does not wholly agree with the official Administration position. Writes Savage:

While many presidents have challenged the constitutionality of other aspects of the War Powers Resolution — which Congress enacted over President Nixon’s veto — no administration has said that the section imposing the 60-day clock was unconstitutional. In 1980,the Office of Legal Counsel concluded that it was within Congress’s constitutional power to enact such a limit on unauthorized hostilities.

Mr. Bauer and Mr. Koh said the 1980 memorandum remains in force, but that their legal argument does not invoke any constitutional challenge to the act.

It was not clear whether the Office of Legal Counsel has endorsed the White House’s interpretation of what “hostilities” means. Mr. Bauer declined to say whether the office had signed off on the theory, saying he would not discuss inter-agency deliberations.

Another interesting aspect of this conflict is that, in the past Republicans were the ones to be dismissive of the War Powers Act, often claiming it impermissibly interfered with the executive’s commander-in-chief power. Today, however, some seem all too happy to rely upon the Act if they think it can hamstring a Democratic president, just as some Democrats seem to forget the limits on executive authority they championed under Presidents named Reagan or Bush.