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H.R. 1457: Reclamation of War Powers Act


Would the move limit the military’s speed and flexibility during the post-nuclear and post-9/11 era of immediate threats?

Context

The Constitution says Congress has the power to declare war, not the president. However, the last time Congress actually declared war was in 1942, against Romania during World War II.

Since then, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War were congressionally funded, but only after the president and the Pentagon began (and then continued) hostilities. Not to mention other military involvements that may not have quite risen to full “war” level, such as the lack of congressional authorization for 2011’s U.S. involvement in Libya.

For decades, many have wondered how to reclaim the legislative branch’s power in this arena, as they continued to fund the very same military actions of which they disapproved. Despite much hand-wringing and vague calls for Congress to “do something” on the subject, the status quo has prevailed.

What the bill does

The Reclamation of War Powers Act would ban Congress from funding any U.S. Armed Forces hostilities unless there was an official declaration of war or a national emergency.

It was introduced on March 1 as H.R. 1457, by Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT4).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that the legislative branch’s primacy in warmaking was intended to prevent rash actions and allow greater buy-in from the American people’s representatives.

“The power to make war is explicitly granted to Congress in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. But, in recent years, Congress has given up more and more of this responsibility, imbuing the President with powers the Constitution never intended,” Rep. Himes said in a press release. “I raised this issue under Presidents Obama and Trump and now under President Biden. This is not a partisan concern.”

“Sending the brave men and women of our armed services to fight and die on foreign shores is the most consequential decision we face, and one that should be made by the direct representatives of the people and families making the sacrifice,” Rep. Himes continued. “The Reclamation of War Powers Act returns power to the Congress as intended. It is an absolutely necessary check on the power of the executive branch.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that quick, decisive action is needed in military matters — in a way that the flexibility of the president, rather than the more deliberative approach of Congress, is better able to provide.

“I think they’re overreacting, quite frankly,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said last year about those who wanted to give Congress more power in warmaking. “Go debate all you want to. I’m going to debate you, trust me. I’m going to let people know that in this moment in time, to play this game with the War Powers Act, which I think is unconstitutional, whether you mean to or not, you’re empowering the enemy.”

Odds of passage

Rep. Himes has introduced the bill three previous times, with increasing cosponsorship each time. His 2016 version attracted no cosponsors, his 2017 version attracted 14 bipartisan cosponsors — 13 Democrats and one Republican, former Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC3) — and his 2019 version attracted 16 Democratic cosponsors.

The current version has attracted fewer cosponsors: four, all Democrats. In other words, the 2017 and 2019 versions, both introduced under a Republican president, earned more Democratic support than the 2016 and 2021 versions, introduced under Democratic presidents.

It awaits a potential vote in either the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, or Rules Committee.

Last updated Apr 21, 2021. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Mar 1, 2021.


Reclamation of War Powers Act

This bill prohibits Armed Forces funding from being obligated or expended for the introduction of the Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, in the absence of a declaration of war, specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by an attack or imminent threat of attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or the Armed Forces.

In the case of a national emergency created by an attack (or threat of attack), funds may be used for only 60 days.

The House of Representatives or the Senate may not consider a bill or joint resolution that makes funds available in violation of these provisions.

The President shall, in the case of such introduction of the Armed Forces, submit to Congress a report that includes

an analysis of the threat to be countered by the use of the Armed Forces; the specific objectives and justification for those objectives; and a description of the scope, duration, cost, and likelihood of success.