The War Powers Act was passed in 1973, in response to the Vietnam War debacle. Our country got into the Vietnam war slowly, gradually, at the direction of presidents without the input of the Congress (other than their budgetary capacity of course—they could always have denied funding!).
In 1973 Congress said, “Never again. This country will only go to war after the people have discussed it and approved it, through their representatives in Congress.” When you look at the Constitution it seems obvious to me that the Founders wanted it to be this way. They had just fought a revolution against a King who could make war on a whim. The last thing they wanted was a President with the same unilateral warmongering power. They gave Congress the power to declare war, and made the President the commander-in-chief; the President only executes military actions after the Congress has decided action is needed (see pertinent passages from the Constitution below).
I think Congress was correct in the assertion of their power in 1973, and I think we need to reassert the correctness here in 2011. Every president since 1973 has pushed back against this law (except for maybe Jimmy Carter, and also Gerald Ford but he’s a special case anyway). Presidents like the power of their office and are always looking to expand it.
George W. Bush used 9/11 to greatly expand the presidential/federal powers, from ramming wars through Congress and torturing prisoners to illegally wiretapping Americans. Many people are surprised that Obama is not only not pulling back from these outrages but pushing them forward. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is not an issue of ideology; it’s an issue of power. Every president chooses to increase the power of the office because it makes him more powerful now, and who cares what the next guy might do with it.
Pertinent passages from the US Constitution:
Article I, Section 8:
The Congress shall have power to… declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
Article II, Section 2:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;
This is all it says about the President’s duty in terms of war. Obviously the Congress was vested with the power to decide when the military is used.