By Carolyn Bossmann
Dr. Edward J. Harpham visited Brookhaven College to give a lecture titled “Going to War: The President and the Constitution,” during which he discussed how U.S. presidents have used the Constitution to help them decide whether to go to war.
Room K234 was filled to capacity Feb. 16, with students having to find places on the carpeted floor to sit and listen. The Institute for Political Studies hosted the event for Presidents Day.
Harpham, an expert in presidential decision-making, is dean of University of Texas at Dallas’ honors college, associate provost and professor of political science. He has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University.
Harpham is also co-author of the “Ninth Texas Edition” of Brookhaven’s government textbook, “We the People: An Introduction to American Politics.”
Harpham shed light on previous presidential decisions and issues currently affecting the world. While the Constitution may seem consistent, the politicians and policies surrounding it are anything but.
“It turns out, declaring war is a lot more problematic than we think,” Harpham said. One distinction that makes declaring war difficult is that it is vastly different from authorizing the use of force.
Declaring war changes the stances of both countries involved, while authorizing the use of force does not necessarily spark a war.
“Declarations of war are generally no longer seen as a prerequisite for using force because the idea of war has muddled,” Harpham said. “When we authorize the use of force against various countries, we don’t do all the things you can do to those countries.” This, he said, is the biggest distinction of the principle of going to war.
The War Powers Resolution of 1973 changed the way presidents approached the authorization of the use of force. “Congress was concerned that it had lost its power,” Harpham said. Presidents were required to notify Congress of their actions, and if Congress did not agree, they would have to withdraw their authorization.
However, congressional vetoes are unconstitutional and have been since the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1983 case INS v. Chadha, according to Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute website.
For the past 42 years, politicians have been bouncing around the actual meaning of this resolution, but it has improved the relationship between the president and Congress. “The War Powers Act has triggered consultations and communications over 100 times since its passage,” Harpham said.
Even with all of the attempts to keep Congress and the president connected when authorization of the use of force is concerned, there have been multiple cases when the use of force was unauthorized, Harpham said.
The list of examples includes President Gerald R. Ford with Vietnam in 1975; President George H.W. Bush with Operation Desert Shield in 1990; Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton with Somalia from 1992 to 1993; President Clinton with Haiti in 1994, with Bosnia in 1995 and with Kosovo in 1998 to 1999; and President Barack Obama with Libya in 2011 and with Syria and Iraq from 2014 to present day.
Political parties are divided when it comes to the authorization of force powers the president and Congress have. Democrats believe the current system of checks and balances does not constrain the president enough, while Republicans believe it excessively limits the president.
Harpham ended his talk with proposals he said could help balance presidential and congressional powers. These included revoking the War Powers Resolution, reconstructing it, or creating a constitutional amendment “with teeth that would clarify what the authorization to use force is,” Harpham said.
After the lecture, Harpham answered students’ questions, focusing mainly on Iraq and ISIL. “I think that’s the lesson we’re learning,” he said. “Terrorism doesn’t look like it’s going away.”
“I’m from Iraq, and when he talked about Iraq and ISIL … I see a different point than what he pointed out,” student Safa Alkaylanie said. “I see ISIL as they’re not all Iraqis, they’re all from different regions. But it was really informative … I like to hear what other people think about what’s going on in the world.”