One Year In, Congress Still Hasn't Authorized The War Against ISIS

They did vote to authorize a soapbox derby, though.
Credit: Bill Clark/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Saturday will mark one year since the U.S. began bombing the Islamic State militant group. In that time, the U.S. has led more than 5,000 airstrikes, spent over $3.2 billion and sent roughly 3,500 troops to Iraq.

But through it all, Congress skipped an important step: authorizing the war itself.

Lawmakers just haven't had the will to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. The Constitution requires Congress to declare wars. In this case, though, President Barack Obama has said he doesn't need congressional sign-off because a sweeping AUMF from 2001 gives him the authority to act alone. Lawmakers disputed that point for months, so Obama sent them a new AUMF proposal, specific to the Islamic State, in February -- saying he would welcome a vote on it even if he didn't think it was necessary. Nothing has happened since.

"This is an illegal war in my view," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Thursday at a Cato Institute event. "The president maintains he can conduct this war without authorization from Congress. The legal claim that it's because of the 2001 AUMF is ridiculous."

Kaine, one of the few lawmakers demanding a war authorization vote, chided his colleagues earlier this week for starting their monthlong recess without even talking about the costs, or the endgame, of a war expected to drag on for many more years.

"Can there be anything -- anything -- more immoral than that? To order troops to risk their lives in support of a military mission that we are unwilling even to discuss?" Kaine said Wednesday on the Senate floor. "One year in, our service members are doing their jobs, but they're still waiting on us to do ours."

In all likelihood, the reason nothing's happening is because lawmakers don't want to hold a tough vote. If Congress votes to authorize the war and things start going downhill, they'll be held accountable. By not voting on it, they can blame any failures on the president. There's also a partisan divide on how to proceed in the military campaign. Democrats generally want to impose geographic and troop limits, while Republicans say the president should have as much flexibility as he wants.

Lawmakers are also distracted by another international matter: the Iran nuclear deal and the need to prevent a possible war on that front. Ironically, one lawmaker has already proposed an AUMF for a potential war in Iran, even as Congress still has yet to authorize the war against the Islamic State.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that because many lawmakers believe Obama can use the 2001 AUMF to go after the Islamic State, they don't feel as urgently as Kaine about the issue. Corker acknowledged, however, that a lot of lawmakers also think the president is stretching the limits of the 14-year-old AUMF, which was passed after the Sept. 11 attacks to authorize military action against al Qaeda. Obama has argued that the Islamic State is an offshoot of al Qaeda and is therefore covered by the old authorization.

"People believe that while it's way out on the outer edges, there is a legal basis for what is happening," Corker told The Huffington Post last week. "But I know that it's something that people get a bee in their bonnet about."

The White House has been pushing the limits of the 2001 AUMF even further as the battle against the Islamic State escalates. The Department of Defense has had trouble recruiting Syrian opposition fighters to help counter the Islamic State, in part because the fighters were guaranteed no protection from Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose military routinely bombs the opposition. Earlier this week, the DOD issued new rules allowing the U.S. military to protect Syrian opposition fighters from Assad. That means the administration is now using the 2001 AUMF to justify attacks on groups not connected to al Qaeda.

"The president and his lawyers have determined that the 2001 AUMF does apply in that particular case," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told HuffPost during his Tuesday briefing.

Congress may not have managed to authorize war in the past year, but they did find time to authorize something else: a soapbox derby on the Capitol grounds. They also honored flowers, for making our moms happy; dedicated a day to the nation's buffalo; gave names to more than 20 buildings; and designated Sept. 25 as National Lobster Day.

Here's a highly scientific clip-art timeline of some of the votes Congress did hold in the past year, instead of holding a war authorization vote:

Jen Bendery