by Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He teaches classes on the Constitution and presidential power. Edelson is author of the forthcoming book, Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, which will be published by the University of Wisconsin Press in November 2013.
It was an encouraging development for the rule of law when President Obama decided to ask Congress for legislative authorization to take military action in Syria. When Obama took office in 2009, it was reasonable to expect that his administration would move away from the Bush-Cheney-Yoo unitary executive model, which was essentially an argument for unchecked presidential power. However, while the Obama administration has certainly not embraced the outlandish unitary executive theory, it has, at times, found ways to skirt limits on presidential power. The most prominent examples are probably the targeted killing, without judicial hearing, of U.S. citizens believed to be terrorist leaders and the administration’s decision to order military action in Libya in 2011. As I have argued elsewhere, in each case, executive branch lawyers in the Obama administration found ways to justify unilateral presidential action unchecked by the other branches of government.
Obama’s decision to involve Congress in the debate over the use of military force in Syria suggests a meaningful acknowledgment that presidential power is accountable to checks and balances. As I have written for the Los Angeles Times, Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval was required by the Constitution since the United States has not been attacked by Syria. However, it was far from clear that Obama would turn to Congress. Advocates of presidential power point out that past practice -- including Obama’s own action in Libya -- supports the conclusion that presidents can more broadly use military force when it is in the national interest, and not only when the U.S. is attacked. The fact that Obama did not act on his own is a positive sign and may help prevent future presidents from unilaterally using military force (picture a hypothetical President Ted Cruz deciding the national interest justified an attack against Canada).
There is reason to contain one’s optimism, though, when it comes to setting new limits on the use of presidential power. Obama has stated that he reserves the right to use military force even if Congress declines to pass authorizing legislation. That is disconcerting, and simply does not make a great deal of sense. What is the point of Congress making a decision if it is merely an advisory opinion? If Congress decides not to authorize the use of military force in Libya, Obama should respect that decision and should not act on his own. Unilateral action under these circumstances would be a dangerous decision for the Constitution, and could also be a bad political move. Some Republican members of Congress have made clear that they are eager to find a reason, any reason, to impeach President Obama and remove him from office. To date, there is no legitimate reason to support such an idea. However, if Obama ordered military action in defiance of Congress, that could provide his political opponents with a legitimate argument for impeachment.