Virginia Republican Congressman Eric Cantor met with President Obama on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Syria. Shortly after his conference with the president, Cantor released a statement saying, “I intend to vote to provide the President of the United States the option to use military force in Syria.”
Just in case you didn’t get that, allow me to interpret Cantor’s statement.
“I intend to abdicate my constitutional duty and give the President of the United States monarchical powers that the Constitution clearly prohibits him from possessing.”
Seriously, has Eric Cantor read the Constitution? Did Cantor’s copy not include Article 1, Section 8 that outlines which branch of the federal government has war powers?
This section reads, “Congress shall have power to declare war….” Or, stated differently, “Congress, and Congress alone, shall have the power to determine who the United States can fight, where and for what length of time.” It doesn’t say, “Congress shall have the power to declare war or to defer to the president whenever it doesn’t feel like doing its job.”
The Constitution is clear: the president has no power to declare war. Period. Congress makes that call. And that doesn’t mean signing off on allowing the president to go to war if he wants to. The Congress debates and makes the decision. The president carries it out – whatever it may be. Cantor wants to let the president decide with his blessing. No! That’s YOUR job congressman!
Why is it that the people who have the hardest time understanding this are the people whose job description is literally “to uphold the Constitution of the United States”?
There’s really no way to misunderstand the framers on this. At the Constitutional Convention, Pierce Butler of South Carolina actually suggested that the president should be given the power to “make war.” How was Pierce’s suggestion received? Upon hearing it, another delegate, Elbridge Gerry, remarked that he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war.” The Convention summarily rejected Butler’s proposal.
Even Alexander Hamilton, an avowed nationalist who at one point argued in favor of the existence an American king, interpreted the Constitution this way. Hamilton said that the powers relating to “the declaring of war, and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies…would appertain to the Legislature” and that the president’s powers “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces” after war had been declared.
Understanding why the Framers denied the president the power to make war is monumentally important In the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, one writer using the pen name “Brutus” remarked that he hoped that the United States’ foreign affairs would not follow the course of the European governments, which he said were, “framed, and administered with a view to arms, and war, as that in which their chief glory consists; they mistake the end of government – it was designed to save…lives, not destroy them.”
How would denying the powers of war to the president accomplish this goal? James Madison answered this question in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, in which he wrote that “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it.” Given the history of the last century, there can be no doubt that he was absolutely correct in this assessment.
As a capstone to the issue, Madison concluded that the Constitution “has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”
Apparently none of this matters to Eric Cantor. No, in his view it is enough for Congress to cowardly betray its constitutional duty and officially relinquish the powers of war to the president. Congressman Cantor might be fine with this scenario, but the Founders would have considered it the germ of tyranny. There is no reason why the citizens of a free country should accept it either.
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