Forget screwing in lightbulbs...
January 10, 2005 12:25 PM   Subscribe

How many lawmakers does it take to declare war? Used to be 218 of the 435. Now, in a time of crisis, it's potentially less than 12. This is something that has been looked at before. Is this the best possible solution?
posted by rocket_skates (30 comments total)
It's easier just to never bother formally declaring war.
posted by Nelson at 12:31 PM on January 10, 2005

Section 2, paragraph h.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:31 PM on January 10, 2005

Thank you for pointing to the specific rule.
posted by rocket_skates at 12:34 PM on January 10, 2005

If you liked that, you'll love seeing the text of the resolution, and the vote.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2005

Ah, the fearful symmetry of a party line.

So ... it states that after four whole days of unanswered compulsion, a tally of those able and unable will be totalled ... and the last dozen standing are those in control?
posted by grabbingsand at 1:08 PM on January 10, 2005

It seems like this is something that could conceivably be used by the majority party as a way to seize power in the event of any manufactured emergency.
posted by bshort at 1:14 PM on January 10, 2005

So, reps. don't even have to be dead or injured, just unable to be present.
Bomb scare, all flights are grounded, profit!
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:33 PM on January 10, 2005

Manufactured Emergency, I vote that in as the concept of the year, or the covert working paradigm of the current decade.

I can see this on a resume, current employer: I work for an Emergency Manufacturing Plant, based in Virginia. We have operational hubs in Aruba, Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Oklahoma City...No emergency is too small, or too large, for our expert teams to fabricate.
posted by Oyéah at 1:38 PM on January 10, 2005

Declaring war is so 20th century. Early 20th century.
posted by oncogenesis at 1:40 PM on January 10, 2005

I agree with oncogenesis. Does this actually matter at all? It seems to me the US has had no trouble going to war whenever it has needed to.
posted by chunking express at 1:43 PM on January 10, 2005

If this applies only to formal declarations of war, I'd say it's not very interesting, since the US hasn't declared war on anyone since 1942. If it applies to "military engagements authorized by Congress" or changes anything in the War Powers Resolution, this is very important. I can't tell from the Boston Herald article which is the case.

By the way, here is a short and unbiased article on the US declarations of war and the current state of the debate.
posted by Triplanetary at 1:43 PM on January 10, 2005

There's nothing in the bill about formal declarations of war, that's not what it's about. It states clearly that it is "for continuity of legislative operations in the House in the event of catastrophic circumstances."

The Herald link states that the bill is about House business, "such as passing laws or declaring war."
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:54 PM on January 10, 2005

"I can no longer sit back and allow... Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion... and the international Communist conspiracy... to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."
-Sterling Hayden as General Jack Ripper
... ...
"Yes, but, uh, the whole idea of the Doomsday Machine is lost... if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh??"
-Peter Sellers as The President

Somewhere in here are the echoes of Dr. Strangelove. Madman takes advantage of the system and pow, beautiful fungi in the sky. But then again, that's just a movie, and in reality US presidents and congresspeople are much more rational, level-headed, and peaceful-minded people wanting only what's best for the Merican people, and that's not war, so we're safe. Nothing to see here. Go on about your business.

I guess it would allow for a good future conspiracy theory though, although in today's world conspiracy theories are a conspiracy theory.
posted by Sir BoBoMonkey Pooflinger Esquire III at 1:58 PM on January 10, 2005

The actual declaration of war has proven to be immaterial to the conduct of war itself.

What Triplanetary said. It seems almost irrelevant if you declare war or not; you're still invadin', killin', contractin', rebuildin'. not to trivialise

I think the larger picture in the Boston Herald article is of more concern: it's not just declaring war, it's running the entire country. That decreases the oligarchy of Congress considerably, and concentration of power to that degree seems a snub to the Constitution.
posted by cosmonik at 1:59 PM on January 10, 2005

We've not had a congressionally declared war since December 11, 1941.
All wars since have been presidentially declared.
So it makes me wonder if congress still has any say in such declarations at all.
posted by grabbingsand at 2:00 PM on January 10, 2005

Maybe this particular wording is ham-handed, but would you rather the Congress was unable to do any business whatsoever in the event of a catastrophe?
posted by ilsa at 2:02 PM on January 10, 2005

Maybe this particular wording is ham-handed, but would you rather the Congress was unable to do any business whatsoever in the event of a catastrophe?

Don't worry... Morgan Freeman will be President by then, and he will have already commissioned the construction of an underground lair for us all to hang out in while we wait for the waters to recede.
posted by psmealey at 2:05 PM on January 10, 2005

grabbingsand: Not to distract from your legitimate point, but the US actually declared war on Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania in 1942. Again, here's the link.
posted by Triplanetary at 2:06 PM on January 10, 2005

We've not had a congressionally declared war since December 11, 1941.
All wars since have been presidentially declared.

No. The other wars are not "presidentially declared." Vietnam, Gulf Wars I and II, and so on were authorized by Congress. The title at the top of the bill will say "Resolution authorizing the use of force" or similar instead of "Declaration of War."

As I understand it, in the international setting a RATUOF to all intents and purposes is a declaration of war; it formally states that we're going to start killing people and breaking things for whatever reason. The difference is, AFAIK, in the domestic setting, where we'd not reserve something that says "Declaration of War" at the top for a war of total mobilization like WW2. Unless we plan to spend $5 trillion plus a year, and draft a few million people, and enforce rationing on the rest of the people, and so on, a RATUOF is fine.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:14 PM on January 10, 2005

Let's recap: Per the Boston Herald article, 1st link in the FPP, in a catastrophic emergency, the resolution that the House passed allows "a handful of lawmakers to run Congress". Not just to declare war - to run Congress and pass legislation. For example, a super-PATRIOT set of laws could severely curtail civil liberties - but just until the emergency has passed (or the war on terrorism is over, whichever comes first).

Second, the FPP then links to two marginal sources - a position taken by the Constitution Party of Virginia and a November 2003 editorial by a Republican Senator Cornyn, in the National Review).

But there is no link to the May 2003 report [pdf] of the Continuity of Government Commission, a nonpartisan (except to a few odd folks) group that recommended a constitutional amendment to solve the problem, and specifically said (page 15 of the report, page 26 of the pdf file):

"The cleanest constitutional solution for filling vacancies in the House of Representatives would be to adopt the same procedure the Senate has employed since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment: providing for the filling of all vacancies, even those occurring on a routine basis, with members appointed temporarily by the governor until a special election is held."

Summary: for the House, there are essentially four possibilities in the case of mass deaths:

(1) Allow states (presumably governors) to make (temporary) appointments. [requires constitutional amendment with specific mechanism spelled out]

(2) Allow Congress to make (temporary appointments) [requires constitutional amendment; this is what Senator Cornyn proposed; the amendment would leave it up to the wisdom of Congress to decide on the exact mechanisms].

(3) Wait until the states can schedule and conduct special elections to replace those who have died; Congress unable to act until enough elections are held to provide a quorum. [status quo]

(4) Run the House with a small number of members, as the just-passed House resolution specified, without having a constitutional amendment that allows this. [Norm Ornstein, a counselor to the independent Continuity of Government Commission, is quoted in the Boston Herald article as saying that he believes the House resolution was unconstitutional -- of course, it's probably impossible to get a Supreme Court ruling on that until after the fact]

So - which door would you prefer? How much do you trust Congress (doors 3 and 4)?
posted by WestCoaster at 2:48 PM on January 10, 2005

I read this as "How many lawnmowers does it take to declare war?" which might have helped explain how Homeland Security money is being spent (scroll to bottom). But no, it's still a mystery.
posted by Aknaton at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2005

There's a reason that this was proposed now, rather than in another era, and passed by a party line vote. Keep in mind that in the past we had the white house burned to the ground, fought a civil war, and faced the possibility of a massive nuclear attack by an enemy nation. Those were all serious threats. Right now, we don't really face those same threats. Hypothetically, it's possible that one or two nuclear bombs could be detonated on american soil, but we don't face the threat of a mass of nuclear missiles raining down on us. The enemies who threaten us don't form a massive army ready to pillage America and destroy everything in their path; they're a group of people plotting individual attacks against prominent targets whose goals are primarily to terrorize rather than militarily bring us to our knees.

Against this backdrop, it's difficult to convince the American people that we're really "at war" and that the threats are "serious." The threats to America are smaller now than they have been during previous national crises. Therefore, it is necessary for the Republican party to manufacture an environment of crisis by passing these sorts of (unconstitutional) rules in order to ensure that the American people still think and worry about a massive attack that could wipe out the US government "any day now."
posted by deanc at 5:03 PM on January 10, 2005

While I understand the worry over possible abuses, I'm somewhat shocked that there are no provisions already in place to handle a situation where a large number of Representatives are killed or injured.

However, the rule changes included numerous items about conduct. Given the straight party split on the vote, I would assume the differences of opinion revolve around one of these conduct changes (presumably put into place to benefit Mr. Delay). If the vote referenced here is the same as the above, I'm sure of it.
posted by Bort at 5:37 PM on January 10, 2005

Sorry, reg. required for the above link. The first two paragraphs of the linked article follow:

After Retreat, G.O.P. Changes House Ethics Rule

Published: January 5, 2005

ASHINGTON, Jan. 4 - House Republicans pushed through a significant change in the handling of ethics complaints over strong Democratic objections Tuesday as the 109th Congress convened with a burst of pomp and partisanship.

The House, on a vote of 220 to 195, enacted a change that would effectively dismiss a complaint in the event of a deadlock in the ethics committee, which is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Its approval came after a retreat by Republicans on Monday on other proposed ethics revisions.

posted by Bort at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2005

How about we stay home and wait until someone declares war on us?
posted by IndigoJones at 6:00 PM on January 10, 2005

but would you rather the Congress was unable to do any business whatsoever

YES! A Congress that doesn't do anything means it can't pass things like DMCA, PATRIOT ACT, Increase spending, Increase Taxes.

Not like a Congress do-ing something will cut taxes, decrease spending or repeal laws.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:01 PM on January 10, 2005

Lowering the quorum under these circumstances is, IMO, more democratically preferable than the alternative: government by Presidential decree, particularly given that the President might be a second-tier cabinet member.
posted by MattD at 6:26 AM on January 11, 2005

I don't know that we'll ever declare war again, in part because we've moved the goal posts on what declaration means.

For Korea, Vietnam, and the 90-91 Gulf War, we took the view that because there was no intention to conquer the enemy's home territory (North Vietnam, North Korea, Iraqa) or displace its de facto or de jure government there was no need to declare war.

In Afghanistan and in the 2003 Iraq War, we were quite plainly seeking to conquer the enemy's home territory and overthrow its de facto (Afghanistan) or de jure (Iraq) government. The apparent rationale for not declaring war was the idea that we were going into combat at least partially on behalf of the people of the enemy state, i.e., that they were in essence another class of victims being subject to domestic occupation.

So, for now, it appears that a declaration of war will be reserved for instances where we're seeking to conquer enemy home territory and have decided that we're free to regard the people of the opponent country as enemies, too. I have to believe we'd have terrible trouble making that rhetorical move, so long as all our prospective enemies are non-democratic states.
posted by MattD at 6:38 AM on January 11, 2005

but would you rather the Congress was unable to do any business whatsoever

Sounds like a great plan to me.
And let's include the executive branch in there too.

Civil servants may continue to go about the business of running the country while those poli-critterswho desire to run the country into the ground are constrained.
posted by nofundy at 9:33 AM on January 11, 2005

This story seems to really be under-the-radar. According to Google News, the only newspaper mention has been in the following:

Boston Herald (original posting, above)


Government Computer News (GCN)

Fort Worth Star Telegram (subscription)
posted by WestCoaster at 3:22 PM on January 11, 2005

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