During the years that the United States was at war with Korea and later Vietnam, Congress (and the American people) felt uneasy that Congress had never provided an official declaration of war. This feeling hardened into anger following President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia along its border with Vietnam (known as “Operation Menu”) without congressional approval. In an attempt to reassert its constitutional power to declare war and restrict the president’s ability to act almost unilaterally in foreign conflicts, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. Nixon vetoed the resolution, and Congress engaged in a lengthy debate over the nature of constitutional war powers in deliberating whether to override his veto. During the debate, the House and Senate grappled with the proper distribution of war powers between Congress and the president, similar to discussions at the Constitutional Convention (Debates on the Legislative Branch) and during the Mexican-American and Korean Wars (see Debate on the Constitutionality of the Mexican War and Speech on the Constitutionality of Korean War on the same subject.)
Source: Congressional Record, 93rd Congress, 1st Session, Nov. 7, 1973. Vol. 119, pp. 36176–36198, 36202–36222.
Debate in the Senate
Mr. EAGLETON. . . . Mr. President, I rise to speak in support of the president’s veto of the so-called war powers bill, and therefore in opposition to the attempt to override it.
The term “war powers” is a generic term dealing with the authority of the president and Congress to commit American Armed Forces into hostilities or into a theater of the world where there is an imminent threat of hostilities. The proposed legislation has had a long and tortuous and, at times, intriguing road. It was 3 years ago or more when the first war powers bills were introduced. . . .
In essence, the Senate bill said the following: The decision to go to war, under our Constitution, is a decision for Congress to make. That is what Hamilton and Madison, who worked on that section of the Constitution, intended. Fresh from the control of King George, they no longer wanted one man, however decent, to make the troublesome and difficult decision to commit the United States to war.
They wanted this to be a collective judgment, made by the Congress of the United States, and therefore they reposed in Congress the authority to declare war.
The Senate bill is premised on that sound constitutional precept. And no valid bill can be premised on any other precept and be constitutional. . . .
That was the basic thrust of the Senate bill. That was the form it was in when it went to that mysterious conclave called the conference committee. The Senate bill disappeared in conference. What came out is a total, complete distortion of the war powers concept. . . .
What this bill says is that the president can send us to war wherever and whenever he wants to. Troops could be deployed tomorrow to the Mideast under this bill without our prior authority. All the president has to do is to make a telephone call to Sen. Mansfield and Sen. Scott and say, “The boys are on the way. I think you should know.” Consultation. There they are: 60 to 90 days. Once those troops are committed, the history of this country is replete with examples; that once committed they remain. . . .
I think this is the most dangerous piece of legislation that I have seen in my brief 5 years in the Senate.