Last week, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force. The bill, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee, had support on both sides of the aisle, including a bipartisan group of cosponsors.
The White House has also suggested support for a repeal, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the Senate would take up a vote on repeal after the House, though Senate efforts have slowed down. This support from the White House and Congress is setting a course for finally reviewing this outdated war authorization.
The 2002 AUMF was passed leading up to the war in Iraq and gave broad authority to President George W. Bush to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”
But nearly 20 years of endless war and four presidents later, that expansive AUMF is still in place. And it’s not the only one.
We’re watching and waiting to find out if Congress will finally repeal this outdated authorization. In the meantime, here are five things you need to know about current AUMFs and congressional war powers.
1. Decisions about war and peace are meant to be in the hands of Congress, not the president.
Article I of the Constitution assigns Congress the responsibility to declare war. The president makes a case to Congress for why war is necessary, but Congress is charged with voting on and authorizing war. The Founders gave this power to Congress on purpose. They knew that the Executive Branch was most prone to entering war and that such important decisions should be in the hands of the Legislative Branch, which represents the citizens who pay war’s costs. But contrary to this vision, the United States has not formally declared war since World War II.
2. Outside of formal declarations of war, Congress passes Authorizations for the Use of Military Force to formally allow the president to conduct military actions within a certain scope.
If the president and/or Congress do not want to engage in a declared war, AUMFs provide another way to use military force. These resolutions allow the president to direct military actions outside of a formal war declaration but within the scope of an authorization passed by Congress. The Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, have all taken place under AUMFs.
3. Four long-obsolete AUMFs are still “active” and could possibly be used for future military operations.
The 1991, 2001, and 2002 AUMFs are all still technically open or in use, despite their being outdated.
- The 1957 AUMF was passed to combat communism in the Middle East during the Cold War.
- The 1991 AUMF was passed to authorize the Gulf War.
- The 2001 AUMF was signed in the days following September 11 to authorize retaliation against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
- The 2002 AUMF allowed the invasion of Iraq.
In all four cases, the AUMFs were kept active after original goals were met. They feature vague language about their scope with no defined sunset dates. Leaving these authorizations in place runs the risk that future presidents could use their existence as a loophole to start a new war without securing congressional approval first.
4. The 2001 AUMF has been used to justify actions 41 times in 19 countries (so far).
Such broad language in current AUMFs gives the president expansive authority to conduct military action without needing to go to Congress first. The 2001 AUMF is a prime example.
Though it was meant as a response to 9/11, the vague language of the 2001 AUMF has allowed it to be used far beyond its original scope. For example, the AUMF has been used to authorize operations in Yemen, Georgia, Djibouti, Iraq, the Philippines, and other countries, none of which were involved in 9/11.
A Congressional Research Service report found the 2001 AUMF was invoked 41 times to justify action in 19 countries since its passage—far beyond what the legislators who voted for it could have imagined.
5. The vast majority of Congress has never voted on an AUMF.
Only a small number of serving members of Congress have been in office long enough to have voted on any of the existing AUMFs.
Of the more than 500 current members of the House and Senate, only 28 voted on the 1991 AUMF, 86 on the 2001 AUMF, and 89 on the 2002 AUMF.
At the most, around 16 percent of Congress has voted on any use of force authorization. Congress is not meeting its responsibility to make difficult decisions about war and military engagement.
Congress has neglected its duty to vote on military engagements, choosing instead to give the president broad authority to carry out unchecked actions. Congress should respect the courage of service members willing to put themselves at risk on America’s behalf by having the courage to formally vote whether to send them into conflict.
CVA Executive Director Nate Anderson had this to say about the latest move to repeal the 2002 AUMF:
For too long the American people’s voice on matters of war and peace – deciding when and why we send our troops into harm’s way – has been absent. Debating and authorizing military action is one of Congress’ most solemn duties and repealing the outdated 2002 AUMF is a step toward Congress reasserting itself in this important role.
Repealing the 2002 AUMF is only a start to fixing our approach to foreign policy and ending our nation’s endless wars. The next steps should be repealing the obsolete 1957 and 1991 AUMFs. Congress should also repeal the 2001 AUMF, which authorizes most of current U.S. military engagements, and reform the process for future authorizations to better reflect our current security challenges.
Congress needs to take back its constitutional responsibilities over war and peace and be the people’s voice steering America away from unnecessary wars of the future.
Read more about our ideas for reforming AUMFs and rebalancing constitutional war powers.