Steve Chapman

But after losing an election, the GOP takes a less expansive view. When President Clinton bombed Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo war, a group of mostly Republican members of Congress filed a lawsuit to make him end the war within 60 days, as mandated by the War Powers Act. (The courts threw it out.)

The bombing of Libya revived this desire to restrict White House discretion. Ten Republican senators voted for a resolution saying Obama had exceeded his constitutional authority.

You would think conservatives on Capitol Hill would be the most vocal opponents of letting the president make war anytime he wants. They believe judges should interpret the Constitution according to the intent of the framers, and the framers were not champions of the imperial presidency, particularly when it came to military matters.

It's been argued that Congress gets to decide only whether to "declare" war, an empty formality. But Abraham Sofaer, the top State Department lawyer under Reagan, wrote that nothing in the text "signifies an intent to allow the president a general authority to 'make' war in the absence of a declaration."

Those who drafted the Constitution "regarded war and peace as being as much, if not more, a legislative responsibility as an executive one," writes Jack Rakove of Stanford University, author of a history of the Constitutional Convention. "Nothing was left to prerogative but the president's implicit power 'to repel sudden attacks.'"

Save it for the faculty club, professor. In Washington, nobody cares. Today, war is at the sole whim of whoever sits in the Oval Office. One president after another has bulldozed the fences confining him, and each time, legislators have cheered him on or let him get away with it.

The result is that the Constitution's limits on the president have become a quaint irrelevance. Congress may not know much about the constitutional division of war powers, but it knows how to surrender.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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