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Peter DeFazio

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio speaks during a town hall Wednesday afternoon at the Chintimini Senior and Community Center in Corvallis. DeFazio also spoke at the main branch of the Albany Public Library.

If your memory stretches back to the start of this year (that seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?) you might recall the talk from certain members of Congress that the time had come to review the laws that govern the ability of presidents to declare national emergencies.

At the time, the question was whether President Donald Trump would declare a national emergency in order to free up billions of dollars from the Pentagon to help build a wall on the country's border with Mexico. You know how this played out: He declared the national emergency, and a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gave him the green light to access the money.

But the debate raised the question as to whether lawmakers would want to flex a little bit of muscle and put some teeth in legislation such as 1976's National Emergencies Act. That measure allows a president to declare a national emergency, which is proper — in a real crisis, the president needs the ability to move quickly. But under the terms of the law, that state of emergency expires after a year unless the president renews it, and Congress must, once every six months, consider whether to entertain a vote on termination.

The law hasn't worked that way: Congress never has voted on whether to terminate a state of emergency. In all, 31 of them remain in place today, and some of them have been on the books for decades. 

The overall issue here, of course, is that Congress has been ceding its powers to the executive branch now for decades. This isn't something that started when Trump became president, even though Trump's ascension to the Oval Office put a fresh focus on the issue. 

In that light, consider the recent proposal from U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio to limit the president's ability to go to war without congressional approval. DeFazio, who represents Oregon's 4th Congressional District, held two town hall meetings on the subject Wednesday in Albany and Corvallis, drawing a combined total of about 200 to the meetings. 

DeFazio said he and others remain particularly concerned that Trump, guided in part by National Security Adviser John Bolton, could decide to start a war in the Middle East by attacking Iran. Such a war, DeFazio told the Democrat-Herald in a phone conversation on Thursday, would run the risk of being "catastrophic" for the region and could spread to other countries as well.

Hence DeFazio's proposal, which would allow emergency uses of military force in limited ways, and only if the United States or its troops or citizens were somehow attacked. Beyond that, the president would have to go to Congress for authorization to use force. The proposal also would put an end date on those authorizations, which would end situations in which presidents could invoke earlier authorizations as a pretext to go to war. (The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was approved after the attacks of Sept. 11, is still in effect today.)

DeFazio said it's his hope that members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, will take a global view of his proposal — after all, he said, even though Trump's presidency has created a certain urgency around the issue, his proposal would have held other presidents in check as well. In fact, DeFazio said, the proposal has attracted some support in the House from Republicans, although it's hard to see it gaining any traction in the Senate.

The congressman is correct in asserting that this is an issue that should find some common ground among both parties — not to mention anyone who believes that one of the roles of Congress is to provide a check on the executive branch. Whether Congress is willing to give DeFazio's proposal even the benefit of a robust debate remains to be seen. (mm)

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