The continued deployment of U.S. military forces in Libya may be setting the stage for a constitutional showdown.
The issue in dispute is whether President Barack Obama has violated the War Powers Act passed by Congress in 1973. It requires that the president when committing American forces to military action either seek a declaration of war or authorization from Congress for it to continue longer than 60 days. A 30 day extension to the 60 day requirement is allowed for withdrawal of U.S. forces.
A number of members of Congress sued the president Wednesday for not seeking authorization for the Libyan effort to remove Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power, and the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a resolution condemning the president for failure to follow the war powers law and demanding he provide reasons why.
The Obama administration said Wednesday it has not violated the act and that it does not apply to the Libya operation.
The president ordered U.S. forces to began operations in Libya on March 19 and 90 days will have passed this weekend. Control of the operation has since passed to NATO, but U.S. forces remain part of the NATO coalition.
The reality is that presidents of both parties have resisted efforts by Congress to impose its auhority over presidential military power. President Richard Nixon unsuccessfully attempted to veto the War Powers Act and presidents since then have questioned its legality. Often they claim they are following the “spirit” of the act in good faith without actually saying they are complying with it.
The act was the result of frustration in Congress over the failure of presidents to seek declarations of war for the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, long-lasting wars which resulted in the deaths of many Americans. Strict constitutionalists also questioned why President George W. Bush didn't seek a war declaration for the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Proponents of the war powers measure point out that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war and fund military operations while the president has authority to command the forces. They believe presidents are ignoring the Constitution and involving America in improper conflicts.
While a constitutional challenge of the president's war powers would likely be partisan and divisive in a presidential election cycle, it may well be time to settle this issue in the courts since it continues to be an area of dispute.