Undeclaring War

A couple of days ago the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on the scope of Congressional authority to rein in a President's conduct of a war that Congress has previously authorized. Not unexpectedly, White House allies played the troops card. Here's Orrin Hatch on the prospect of cutting funding for the war or aspects of it: "The message to our troops is that we no longer support them." This is misleading rhetoric, of course. A conditional cutoff of funds could and would be structured so as to provide actual service members on the ground with all necessary equipment, pay and other support needed during a withdrawal. Senator Hatch may be right that Congressional use of the de-funding option would be perceived by many Americans as undercutting the troops, but that's partly because people like him are deliberately fostering this misunderstanding.

On the merits of the separation-of-powers question, it's notable how weak the argument is for Presidential unilateralism is. The Constitution authorizes the President to "suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions" even without prior Congressional authorization, and given the conditions of modern warfare, this language can plausibly be read to authorize the President to commit troops to combat overseas even where the military threat does not technically count as an "invasion." But beyond responding to threats on an emergency basis, the President does not have power to authorize military action without congressional support.

Is there an argument that once Congress has authorized military action, it can't take back that authorization? It's hard to see what functional purpose such a one-way ratchet would serve. Congress was given the war declaration power precisely so that the branch of the federal government most directly answerable to the People would need to assent to the sacrifice of lives and treasure. That logic would appear to be just as strong for continuing a war as for starting one. The only argument I can see to the contrary is a textual one: The Constitution expressly grants Congress the power to declare war but grants Congress no power to undeclare war: expressio unius est exclusio alterius. There are some contexts in which an argument of this sort makes sense. For example, the Senate can confirm but can't unconfirm cabinet members and judges. However, there is a good functional reason for treating the confirmation power as not including its opposite: once a person becomes an executive official or judge, separation of powers demands that he or she be independent of Congress. By contrast, there is no good reason why the President, once given the power to wage war by Congress, should be able to ignore a congressional decision to withdraw that power.

So Congress, what do you say? How about repealing the authorization for use of military force in Iraq to make clear who the real decider is?