Does Congress Ever Turn Down a Request for War?

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Plenty of people think Congress should be called back into session to conduct a vote on the bombing campaign in Syria. John Boehner disagrees:

Boehner’s office deferred to the White House when asked about the issue.

“As the Speaker has said, he thinks it would be good for the country to have a new authorization for the use of military force covering our actions against ISIL, but traditionally such an authorization is requested and written by the commander-in-chief — and President Obama has not done that,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said via email.

One of these days Boehner is going to have to make up his mind whether President Obama does too much or too little. It’s getting a little hard to keep up with him.

But this raises a question. Has Congress ever turned down a president who asked for authorization to use military force? Sure, there was Ford’s last-ditch aid request for Vietnam in 1975, but that was for the end of a war, not the start of one. Anything else? Do the fights over funding for the contras count? I feel like I’m going to be embarrassed when someone points out some famous congressional refusal that I’ve forgotten about, but I sure can’t dredge anything up.

Obviously Obama has philosophical reasons for insisting that he can go to war on his own, and he also has political reasons for not forcing fellow Democrats to take a tough vote. But does he have even the slightest chance of Congress actually turning him down?

UPDATE: OK, I’m already embarrassed. I guess you could count the non-vote on Syria last year, couldn’t you? After all, Obama did ask for permission to bomb Syria, and Congress did let it die without any real debate. On the other hand, I’d say that Obama mostly asked for authorization in the hopes of being turned down. He didn’t exactly put on a full-court press, did he?

Any other examples?

UPDATE 2: There have been a few other suggestions. (1) Congressional hindrance of FDR before Pearl Harbor. That was a mixed bag, and anyway, I guess I was thinking of more recent (postwar) history. (2) Kosovo and Libya. Interesting cases, but more of a muddle than an outright loss for the president. Congress approved some funding bills and denied others.

Still, there’s enough here to suggest that presidents often have to fight with Congress over military action. Especially Democratic presidents.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend