WASHINGTON -- It's Memorial Day weekend, and congressional Republicans are using their weekly video address to the nation to call for "honoring our commitment" to U.S. troops.
But they're making a curious argument on how to show that commitment: They want President Barack Obama to support a House-passed defense authorization bill that provides more funding for the war against the Islamic State -- the same war that Congress hasn't taken the time to debate, authorize or vote on.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, delivered this week's GOP address. He said Congress has passed annual defense authorization bills for 53 years to ensure that the military has the resources it needs. House Republicans passed their version of this year's bill on May 15.
"It gives our troops a raise and updates their benefits," said Thornberry. "It eases our war fighters’ transition to the VA and it makes sure we get the most value possible for the taxpayer dollars."
That may all be true. But the bill also lets Congress spend another $89.2 billion on funding operations like the military campaign against the Islamic State. It's been nine months since Obama began directing airstrikes against the terrorist group, and he's been doing so without new congressional authorization. The Constitution requires Congress to declare wars, but in this case, Obama said he doesn't need lawmakers' sign-off because a sweeping 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force covers his actions. Lawmakers disputed that point for months, so the president sent them a new, Islamic State-specific AUMF proposal in February, saying that he welcomed their vote on it even though he doesn't think he needs it.
Nothing has happened since.
Congress has barely touched the AUMF because lawmakers disagree on how to shape it and because, frankly, many don't want their fingerprints on a new war authorization in case something goes awry. But their failure to act leaves the U.S. engaged in a war with no parameters on its length, cost or endgame. The U.S. has already spent more than $2.1 billion on the effort, participated in more than 4,000 airstrikes and sent 3,000 military personnel to Iraq.
And that war continues to escalate. Last week, Islamic State forces captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, and in recent days they have almost entirely seized control of the Syrian town of Palmyra. White House officials have been on the defensive, walking a fine line on whether Obama plans to send more troops to Iraq. Republicans on Capitol Hill have been lining up to criticize Obama's military approach. But through it all, Congress still hasn't authorized the war itself.
A handful of House Democrats tried to offer AUMF amendments to the defense authorization bill last week when it was being debated, but Republicans blocked them. One GOP lawmaker said he agreed that Congress has a responsibility to authorize wars, but said it's not appropriate to do so during debate on the National Defense Authorization Act. That left some Democrats flabbergasted.
"This is the NDAA. This is the bill. This funds the wars. This notion that this doesn't belong here, well, where the hell does it belong?" asked Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "We treat war as if it's nothing. We have men and women in harm's way. ... This is disgraceful."