Saturday, August 8, 2015 marks one year since the U.S. launched military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As the Senate prepared to adjourn today for the August recess, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, took to the floor to highlight the upcoming anniversary and decry the fact that a year has gone by without a meaningful debate and vote on the U.S. mission against ISIL.
“We are about to go on a one-month adjournment with the nation at war,” said Senator Kaine. “Although vested with the sole power to declare war by Article I of the Constitution, Congress has refused a meaningful debate or vote on the war against the Islamic State. A Congress quick to criticize any executive action by the President has nevertheless encouraged him to carry out an unauthorized war.”
“A debate in Congress by the people’s elected representatives and a vote to authorize the most solemn act of war is how we tell our troops that what they’re doing, what they’re risking their lives for has purpose, has meaning, and has the support of the American people,” Kaine continued. “Otherwise, we’re asking them to risk their lives without even bothering to discuss whether the mission is something we support. Can there be anything, anything more immoral than that – to order troops to risk their lives in support of the military mission that we’re are unwilling even to discuss? One year in, our servicemembers are doing their jobs but they’re still waiting on us to do ours.”
Kaine’s full remarks are below:
Mr. President, we’re about to start our traditional August recess. Congress is an interesting place because we not only get a recess, a vacation, as many Americans do, but we’re legally required to take one. That’s right. By an act of Congress, Congress is required, absent a separate agreement, to take a month off during August. I learned that just yesterday during a great presentation from one of our Senate historians, Kate Scott. This mandated August adjournment is part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, and the act provides that in odd-numbered years, the House is adjourned from the first Friday in August until the Tuesday after Labor Day.
Mr. President, there is an exception the mandated recess “shall not be applicable if on July 31 of such year a state of war exists pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress.” Again, the mandated recess is not applicable if on July 31 of such year, a state of war exists pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress.
This provision makes basic sense, doesn’t it? Congress shouldn’t go out for a mandatory 30-day vacation when the nation’s at war. It’s not right that American troops should risk their lives overseas far from home while Congress takes a month off. The Congress that passed this bill in 1970 had an expectation about how serious war was, and how Congress, the institution charged with declaring war, would treat such a serious obligation.
We are about to go on a one-month adjournment with the nation at war. In fact, this Saturday, August 8, marks one year since President Obama initiated U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State in northern Iraq. In the past year, more than 3,000 members of the United States military have served in Operation Inherent Resolve – thousands are there now – launching more than 4,500 air strikes, carrying out Special Forces operations and assisting the Iraqi military, the Kurdish pesh merga and Syrians fighting the Islamic State. Virginians connected with the U.S.S. Roosevelt carrier group are stationed there right now. We made major gains in northern Iraq and more recently in northern Syria, but the threat posed by the Islamic state continues to spread in the region and beyond.
The war has cost $3.2 billion through mid-July, an average of $9.4 million a day, and seven American service members have lost their lives serving in support of the mission. And recently, we have heard that the Administration may be expanding the scope of the war to defend U.S.-trained Syrian fighters against attacks, including from the Bashar Assad regime. We’re expanding our cooperation with Turkey in the region. We’re even hearing rumors of a U.S. humanitarian zone in Syria.
Each of these steps is potentially significant and could lead to even more unforeseen expansions of the ongoing war. We have already had testimony by military leaders to suggest that the war will likely go on for years. But as the war expands and our troops risk their lives far from home, and as we prepare to go on our traditional one-month recess, a tacit agreement to avoid debating this war persists in Washington.
The President maintains that he can conduct this war without authorization from Congress. He waited more than six months after the war started to even send Congress a draft authorization of the mission. Congressional behavior has been even more unusual. Although vested with the sole power to declare war by Article I of the Constitution, Congress has refused a meaningful debate or vote on the war against the Islamic State. A Congress quick to criticize any executive action by the President has nevertheless encouraged him to carry out an unauthorized war.
As far as our allies, the Islamic State or our troops know – Congress is indifferent to this war. I first introduced a resolution to force Congress to do its job and debate this war in September 2014. That led in December to an affirmative vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to authorize the war with specific limitations, but the matter wasn’t taken up on the floor because the Senate was about to change to a new majority, and that party wanted to analyze the issue afresh.
Six months then went by, and Senator Jeff Flake and I introduced finally a bipartisan war resolution in June to pry the Senate to take its constitutional responsibility seriously after so many months of inaction. We wanted to show there is a bipartisan consensus against the Islamic State. The result: a few discussions in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but otherwise silence.
One year of war against the Islamic State has transformed a president, who was elected in part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war, into an executive war president. It has stretched the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force – that was passed to defeat the perpetrators of 9/11 – far beyond its original meaning or intent. It has shown to all that neither the Congress nor the President feels obliged to follow the War Powers Resolution which would cause the President to cease any unilateral military action within 90 days unless Congress votes to approve it. And it has demonstrated that Congress would rather avoid its constitutional duty to declare war rather than have a debate about whether and how the United States should militarily confront the Islamic State.
This one-year anniversary also coincides with the vigorous Congressional effort to challenge U.S. diplomacy regarding the Iranian nuclear agreement. The contrast between Congressional indifference to war and energetic challenge to diplomacy is most disturbing.
So why isn’t Congress doing its job? Last month, I asked Commandant Joseph Dunford, nominated to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether Congressional action to finally authorize the war against the Islamic State would be well received by American troops. His answer said it all. “I think what our young men and women need, and it’s really all they need to do what we ask them do, is the sense that what they’re doing has purpose, has meaning, and has the support of the American people.”
A debate in Congress by the people’s elected representatives and a vote to authorize the most solemn act of war is how we tell our troops that what they’re doing, what they’re risking their lives for has purpose, has meaning, and has the support of the American people. Otherwise, we’re asking them to risk their lives without even bothering to discuss whether the mission is something we support.
Can there be anything, anything more immoral than that – to order troops to risk their lives in support of the military mission that we’re are unwilling even to discuss? One year in, our servicemembers are doing their jobs but they’re still waiting on us to do ours.
As I conclude, yeah, what about that August recess? How can we go away and adjourn for a month in the midst of an ongoing war? Why, that’s easy.
The part of the statute that creates an exception for the mandatory august adjournment only applies if there has been — quote — “a declaration of war by Congress.” because we haven’t even bothered to debate or authorize this war in the year since it started we are still entitled by statute to take the month of August off.