Misleading the citizenry (8/17/2014)

The American press, and members of Congress, should be promoting the understanding that the president does not have the power to take us to war, writes David Adler.

By David Adler

The humanitarian crisis that began brewing last week in Iraq, with the news that the lives of some 40,000 religious minorities were threatened by the self-pronounced Islamic State, generated calls from politicians and members of the media for a quick, resolute military response from President Obama. The demands were predictable. Whenever challenges arise, Americans look to the president to provide decisive leadership and action. Our nation has become increasingly president-centric, in utter disregard of the Constitution and separation of powers.

The role of the American press in undermining public understanding of the constitutional allocation of powers has been profound. The repeated demands in commentary and editorials for President Obama to order missile strikes against ISIS, have heightened Americans’ expectations that it is the singular responsibility of the chief executive to decide when and where to deploy U.S. military power. Some of the calls reflect a lack of understanding of constitutional arrangements. Others are cynical, seeking partisan advantage. In either case, the citizenry has been misled.

The Constitution vests in Congress the sole authority to authorize military strikes. It is as irresponsible for members of the Fourth Estate to demand presidential authorization of military actions as it is to promote executive lawmaking and expenditures from the U.S. Treasury.

Such calls reflect, again, the urgent need for civic education across America. A citizenry that believes it is the responsibility of the president to solve all problems, foreign and domestic, is a citizenry that soon loses its appreciation for constitutionally limited government. The result, as we have witnessed for the past 50 years, is an imperial presidency, impervious to laws and indifferent to the separation of powers and checks and balances.

The American people deserve better. Members of Congress eager to sue the president on grounds of violation of the Affordable Health Care Act, would have greater credibility if they assumed responsibility for exercising and defending their own constitutional roles and powers, including the greatest power, the decision to employ military force. Congressional members who target a statutory provision or two, but ignore fundamental constitutional principles, will rightly be accused of cherry-picking. Presidential accountability can be better achieved through congressional accountability.

And the American press should be better informed. The media must not mislead the citizenry into believing that the president is a Universal Providence. How refreshing might it be, if a television anchor opened the nightly newscast by asking, “What will Congress do in response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Iraq?” Or, “Will Congress exercise its constitutional authority to order missile strikes against ISIS?”

Those questions would reveal an enlightened, but not unreasonable, state of knowledge about a key provision in the Constitution that affects the lives of all Americans. They would also promote congressional accountability to both the Constitution and the American people.

As it stands, members of Congress enjoy a free pass on these vital questions of national security. Unleashing the war power requires solemn discussion and debate. Americans have every right to expect Congress to assume its institutional and constitutional responsibility to debate America’s response to the threat of ISIS.


Adler is the Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs.