CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Five years ago, the War Powers Commission at the University of Virginia proposed legislation that would require the president to get permission from Congress to commit U.S. troops to combat operations lasting more than a week.
The proposal could become reality this year, as Congress discusses a bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., and John McCain, R-Ariz., based on the proposal.
Kaine was at the university’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy on Wednesday afternoon to talk about the legislation, which he called “an obsession of mine.”
“Congressional debate on [potential military conflicts] is critical in terms of getting the American public on board with it,” Kaine said to a class of about 100 students at UVa’s Garrett Hall. Many of the students were in a course taught by Gerald F. Warburg, a public-policy professor who moderated the discussion.
In theory, the president acts as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but Congress must declare war. The reality is a bit murkier, as presidents often commit troops to long-term military conflicts without a formal declaration.
The War Powers Consultation Act of 2014 is supposed to make the roles of Congress and the executive branch clearer. The president would have to get congressional approval before ordering military combat operations expected to last more than seven days.
Kaine told the audience that the act would ensure troops aren’t sent into harm’s way without a general political consensus that military action is warranted.
“We should never ask anyone to sacrifice themselves that way when the branches of government haven’t done the work to see if it’s worthwhile,” Kaine said.
The Miller Center convened the War Powers Commission in 2007. Members included two former secretaries of state — James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher — as well as various scholars, retired politicians and former Cabinet members.
The commission sought to replace the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which has been criticized as ineffectual and vague. It has largely been ignored by presidents of both parties.
“This is not healthy,” reads a 2008 Miller Center report. “It does not promote rule of law. It does not send the right message to our troops or to the public. And it does not encourage dialogue or cooperation between the two branches.”
The report also recommended creating a joint congressional committee that gets regular updates from the administration on “hot spots” around the world that could require military intervention.
The recommendation is included in the War Powers Consultation Act.
Students asked questions toward the end of the session about the legislation’s chances this session, surveillance policies and possible grey areas that may not be covered by the act.
One student asked if drone strikes count as military action. Kaine said they would not; they are covered by the 9-18-01 Act, a broad declaration of war on terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks or their collaborators.
I’ll have a whole set of separate concerns about the validity of that declaration,” Kaine said. “It’s too open-ended.”
Lina Zimmerman, a second-year student who attended the talk, said she supports the proposal, but she’s concerned it may not gain any traction in Congress, “given the history.”
But this may be the right political climate for the act, she said.
“I think this is an appropriate time,” Zimmerman said. “The American public is certainly in support of seeing Congress and the executive [branch] consult more.”