Constitutional responsibilities of Congress

The Constitution gives Congress great responsibility, but often Congress prefers to pass the buck. The responsibility to declare war, for example, hasn’t been exercised since 1941. After President Truman decided to wage war in Korea without asking Congress for a declaration of war, the US has waged war numerous times without a declaration.  Congress has passed resolutions, the Tonkin Gulf resolution for example, that have served to authorize war thus avoiding the Constitutional responsibility.  With the War Powers act of 1973, Congress agreed to turn over most war making decisions to the President.

Congress has sought to abdicate responsibility with a line item veto. Ronald Reagan asked Congress for this power in the 1986 State of the Union address, “Tonight I ask you to give … me the authority to veto waste, and I’ll take the responsibility, I’ll make the cuts, I’ll take the heat.” Congress attempted to grant this power to the president by the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, but in 1998 the Supreme Court ruled the act to be unconstitutional. Since then there have been many proposals for a line item veto construed in one way or another to be Constitutional. The No Labels organization supports such a proposal.

In other instances Congress has imposed conditions on itself.  Like New Years resolutions these conditions are weak: they can be abandoned as easily as they are adopted.  The Constitution makes Congress responsible for government spending.  Yet in 1917 Congress included a debt ceiling in the Second Liberty Bond Act.  The debt ceiling sets a limit on debt which leads to a contradiction:  Congress can authorize spending that violates the debt ceiling law.   Recently President Obama has been faced with this issue: which law must he follow?

Similarly with the Budget Control Act of 2011, Congress passed a law overriding its own decisions.  Sequestration requires the government to reduce spending previously authorized: a decision that Congress wouldn’t enact directly.  Subsequently, some in Congress have delighted in criticizing spending cuts mandated by Congress as if Congress weren’t ultimately responsible.

About whungerford

* Contributor at where we discuss the politics, economics, and events of the New New York 23rd Congressional District (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, (Eastern) Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben,Tioga, Tompkins, and Yates Counties) Please visit and comment on whatever strikes your fancy.
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