In a Boston federal court last Thursday, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), filed a lawsuit seeking to receive an injunction preventing President Bush from waging an undeclared war in the Persian Gulf. Citing the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, the lawsuit is intended to demonstrate the intentions of the founding fathers to grant war-making powers exclusively to the legislative body.
Lawsuits such as these have been filed in the past. In the Vietnam War and in the Persian Gulf War, lawsuits were filed in an attempt to prevent the president from waging war without a declaration from Congress. Though all have been unsuccessful, their purpose is not necessarily to achieve legal recognition. More importantly, they are useful tools in engaging public debate on an issue that is deserving of public challenge. There are scenarios in which the president should have limited use of U.S. armed forces, but this does not grant the president the right to wage unrestricted war. The use of military forces should remain a power of the Congress, and it is up to Congress and the American public to ensure that the executive branch does not exceed its Constitutionally-established mandate.
This lawsuit should help to stimulate public scrutiny and debate on the impending war on Iraq. Such scrutiny is a critical piece of the checks and balances that separate our government from a dictatorship. According to Conyers and other plaintiffs cited in the lawsuit, the legislation passed by Congress authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq was not a declaration of war. Whichever side of the debate you happen to fall on, the additional public and congressional scrutiny this lawsuit will help to stimulate is an essential precursor to war. With thousands of lives at stake, anything less will only lead to a conflict without adequate support at all levels of our society.
A significant wrinkle is the inclusion of several unnamed U.S. soldiers and the parents of servicemen as co-plaintiffs in the suit. Whatever the intentions of our commander in chief, these are the individuals with the most at stake should conflict erupt. Their inclusion is essential to the lawsuit receiving the media attention and ensuing popular debate that it warrants.
Since the Vietnam War, the federal government has taken steps to ensure that the president cannot wage a war without a mandate from Congress, namely the War Powers Act of 1973. The president is not a monarch; he does not have the ability to choose which international conflicts must met congressional approval. This is a power that resides solely within the jurisdiction of the legislative branch. Given what appears to be imminent war, it is important to remind the American public and our civilian leadership that consent to war must not rest in the hands of a few, but in the hands of our elected representatives in Congress.