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Syria, North Korea, and the President's Power to Take Action

John Pemble
President Donald Trump speaking in Des Moines in June, 2015

The launching of U.S. cruise missiles at Syrian air bases drew praise from U.S. Senator Joni Ernst at a constituent meeting in Elkader. But, should President Trump want to take further action, the message was clear - he needs congressional approval. "Anything further, if there were further actions that would happen, the president needs to come to Congress and explain that," says Ernst.

So, when does the president have authority to act on his own, and when does he need approval from Congress? Host Ben Kieffer asks the question on this politics day edition of River to River.

Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University says that Article 1 of the Constitution grants Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. "If there's a direct attack on the United States, like 9-11 or like Pearl Harbor, there's no question that the president, under the constitution has the power to respond without going to Congress first."

Goldford points out that the last formal declaration of war came December 8, 1941. He says when Congress began to get concerned about presidents acting unilaterally after the Vietnam War, it passed the War Powers Resolution. The resolution states that a president must report to Congress within 48 hours of committing troops to military action, and puts a 60 day limitation on action without a formal declaration of war.

"The problem is that no president, Republican or Democrat, has wanted to abide by this particular statute because all presidents believe that's an infringement on their powers, but nobody literally or figuratively at this point has wanted to make a federal case out of it," says Goldford.

Dave Andersen, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University says the first Iraq war was an interesting example. He says President George H. W. Bush lined up international support and funding for military action against Iraq, and then pressured Congress by saying he could essentially go around them if they didn't go along with the action. Goldford says the president can accuse Congress of endangering Americans or U.S. troops if they don't approve action or spending, "and there aren't many members of Congress with the intestinal and political fortitude to stand up against that kind of critique."

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk