The Power of Congress to Control the President’s Discretion.

Over the President’s veto, Congress enacted the War Pow- ers Resolution,194 designed to redistribute the war powers between the President and Congress. Although ambiguous in some respects, the Resolution appears to define restrictively the President’s powers, to require him to report fully to Congress upon the introduction of troops into foreign areas, to specify a maximum time limitation on the engagement of hostilities absent affirmative congressional action, and to provide a means for Congress to require cessation of hostilities in advance of the time set.

The Resolution states that the President’s power to commit United States troops into hostilities, or into situations of imminent involvement in hostilities, is limited to instances of (1) a declaration of war, (2) a specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by an attack on the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.195 In the absence of a declaration of war, a President must within 48 hours report to Congress whenever he introduces troops (1) into hostilities or situations of imminent hostilities, (2) into a foreign nation while equipped for combat, except in certain nonhostile situations, or (3) in numbers which substantially enlarge United States troops equipped for combat already located in a foreign nation.196 If the President introduces troops in the first of these three situations, then he must terminate the use of troops within 60 days after his report was submitted or was required to be submitted to Congress, unless Congress (1) has declared war, (2) has extended the period, or (3) is unable to meet as a result of an attack on the United States, but the period can be extended another 30 days by the President’s certification to Congress of unavoidable military necessity respecting the safety of the troops.197 Congress may through the passage of a concurrent resolution require the President to remove the troops sooner.198 The Resolution further states that no legislation, whether enacted prior to or subsequent to passage of the Resolution will be taken to empower the President to use troops abroad unless the legislation specifically does so and that no treaty may so empower the President unless it is supplemented by implementing legislation specifically addressed to the issue.199

Aside from its use as a rhetorical device, the War Powers Resolution has been of little worth in reordering presidential-congressional relations in the years since its enactment. All Presidents operating under it have expressly or implicitly considered it to be an unconstitutional infringement on presidential powers, and on each occasion of use abroad of United States troops the President in reporting to Congress has done so “consistent[ly] with” the reporting section but not pursuant to the provision.200 Upon the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi troops in 1990, President Bush sought not congressional authorization but a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force by member Nations. Only at the last moment did the President seek authorization from Congress, he and his officials contending that he had the power to act unilaterally.201 After intensive debate, Congress voted, 250 to 183 in the House of Representatives and 53 to 46 in the Senate, to authorize the President to use United States troops pursuant to the U.N. resolution and purporting to bring the act within the context of the War Powers Resolution.202

By contrast, President George W. Bush sought a resolution from Congress in 2002 to approve the eventual invasion of Iraq before seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution, all the while denying that express authorization from Congress, or for that matter, the U.N. Security Council, was necessary to renew hostilities in Iraq. Prior to adjourning for its midterm elections, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq Resolution of 2002,203 which it styled as “specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.” On signing the measure, the President noted that he had sought “an additional resolution of support” from Congress, and expressed appreciation for receiving that support, but stated, “my request for it did not, and my signing this resolution does not, constitute any change in the long-standing positions of the executive branch on either the President’s constitutional authority to use force to deter, prevent, or respond to aggression or other threats to U.S. interests or on the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution.”204 In the Bush administration’s view, the primary benefit of receiving authorization from Congress seems to have been the message of political unity it conveyed to the rest of the world rather than the fulfillment of any constitutional requirements.

Although there is recurrent talk within Congress and without as to amending the War Powers Resolution to strengthen it, no consensus has emerged, and there is little evidence that there exists within Congress the resolve to exercise the responsibility concomitant with strengthening it.205


Pub. L. 93–148, 87 Stat. 555, 50 U.S.C. §§ 15411548. For the congressional intent and explanation, see H. REP. NO. 93–287, S. REP. NO. 93–220, and H. REP. NO. 93–547 (Conference Report), all 93d Congress, 1st sess. (1973). The President’s veto message is H. Doc. No. 93–171, 93d Congress. 1st Sess. (1973). All this material is collected in The War Powers Resolution: Relevant Documents, Reports, Correspondence, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 103d Cong., 2d Sess. (Comm. Print) (GPO: 1994), 1–46. For a narrative account of passage and an assessment of the disputed compliance to date, from the congressional point of view, see The War Powers Resolution, A Special Study of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 102d Cong., 2d Sess. (Comm. Print) (GPO: 1982). [Back to text]
87 Stat. 554, 2(c), 50 U.S.C. § 1541(c). [Back to text]
50 U.S.C. § 1543(a). [Back to text]
50 U.S.C. § 1544(b). [Back to text]
Id. at § 1544(c). It is the general consensus that, following INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983), this provision of the Resolution is unconstitutional. [Back to text]
50 U.S.C. § 1547(a). [Back to text]
See the text of the reports in The War Powers Resolution: Relevant Documents, Reports, Correspondence, supra at 47 (Pres. Ford on transport of refugees from Danang), 55 (Pres. Carter on attempted rescue of Iranian hostages), 73 (Pres. Reagan on use of troops in Lebanon), 113 (Pres. Reagan on Grenada), 144 (Pres. Bush on Panama), 147, 149 (Pres. Bush on Persian Gulf), 189 (Pres. Bush on Somalia), 262 (Pres. Clinton on Haiti). [Back to text]
See Crisis in the Persian Gulf Region: U.S. Policy Options and Implications:Hearings Before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, 101st Cong., 2d Sess. (1990), 701 (Secretary Cheney) (President did not require “any additional authorization from the Congress” before attacking Iraq). On the day following his request for supporting legislation from Congress, President Bush, in answer to a question about the requested action, stated: “I don’t think I need it. . . . I feel that I have the authority to fully implement the United Nations resolutions.” 27 WEEKLY COMP. PRES. DOC. 25 (Jan. 8, 1991). [Back to text]
Pub. L. 102–1, 105 Stat. 3 (1991). [Back to text]
Pub. L. 107–243; 116 Stat. 1498 (2002). The House approved the resolution by a vote of 296–133. The Senate passed the House version of H.J. Res. 114 by a vote of 77–23. [Back to text]
See President’s Statement on Signing H.J. Res. 114, Oct. 16, 2002, available at [–906028.html]. [Back to text]
See, on proposals to amend and on congressional responsibility, J. ELY, WAR AND RESPONSIBILITY: CONSTITUTIONAL LESSONS OF VIETNAM AND ITS AFTERMATH (1993). [Back to text]