“The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”
— James Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1798
If you search Google for the above statement, top on the list is a blog post from U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. (At least it’s the top of the list given by the algorithm to computers that have previously searched for things about Utah’s senior senator.)
It is one of many such posts, statements and speeches Lee has given over the years as part of his efforts to reclaim for Congress the many powers and responsibilities that — over many years, under the rule of both parties — have atrophied or disappeared.
The effort by Lee and like-minded politicians and scholars is called the Article I Project. Because that’s the part of the Constitution that creates and empowers Congress. And because it reminds us that, in the founding document, Congress is deliberately listed first.
It might be less than charitable at this moment to suggest that Lee’s concern about too much power having flowed from the legislative to the executive seemed to flag a bit over the last three years, once a member of his own party ascended to the White House.
And, at least in the last couple of days, such a quibble would also be inaccurate.
Wednesday, Lee came storming out (hard as that might be to imagine for the soft-spoken senator) of a briefing given to senators by administration officials.
It was supposed to be a meeting where members of the Article I branch would hear a report from officials of the Article II branch about what was going on, and what might go on, in our hostilities with the Islamic Republic of Iran. To hear Lee tell it, it was no such thing.
Rather than answer questions and seek guidance from the branch of government that holds exclusive power not only to declare a war, but also to pay for it, the briefing consisted mostly of admonitions to senators to go along, be quiet and not ask too many questions, lest it embolden our enemies.
Lee, to his immense credit, was having none of it.
“I find this insulting and demeaning," Lee said. "Not personally, but to the office that each of the 100 senators in this building happens to hold.”
The senator said he had carried an open mind into the briefing. That he was not prejudging a decision on whether to support pending congressional resolutions that would limit the president’s power to pursue and escalate hostilities with a clearly hostile foe.
Afterwards, Lee said, he was prepared to vote for just such a resolution.
The current commander in chief is, just as the founders feared, far too quick on the trigger and has given no evidence that he has any overarching plan, strategy or doctrine guiding his interactions with Iran or any other nation, friend or foe.
The administration might yet be able to come up with sound reasons why Congress should approve a declaration of war, or its more equivocal cousin, an authorization of the use of military force. But it has yet to do so.
Until that happens, Lee is correct in his principled stand against letting this president — any president — commit this nation to war on his — or her — own authority.