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Americans on War Powers, Authorization for Use of Military Force and Arms Sales: A National Survey of Registered Voters

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Published by the Program for Public Consultation at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland

The question of when the United States should use military force is a profound question. There has been a long-running debate about the role of Congress and the President when it comes to making this decisions. The constitution gives Congress the power to fund the military and declare war, and declares the President as the Commander in Chief of the military. However, there are ambiguities about which branch of government has the power in a number of specific situations related to the use of force and the transfer of arms to another country. Currently there are a number of pieces of Congressional legislation that seek to give Congress greater power.

One proposal seeks to give Congress greater influence over the use of military force outside of the framework of a declaration of war or in response to an attack on the US. Current law, grounded in the War Powers Act of 1973, requires that the President withdraw troops after 60 days unless Congress votes in favor of continuing it. However, since its passage, every President has considered this unconstitutional and many have not abided by it, keeping forces in place without Congressional approval. In order to stop such a military operation, Congress must gather a veto-proof majority, or bring the President to court. Neither has ever happened.

A proposal that has been put forth in Congress is to ‘flip the script’ on this, and automatically cut off funding to such military operations after 60 days, unless Congress actively votes in favor of continuing the operation. (Based on H.R. 2108, H.R. 5410 and S. 2391)

Another proposal deals with the termination of a Congressional authorization to use military force (AUMF). Shortly after the September 11 attacks Congress authorized the President to use military force against those responsible for the attacks, or who have aided those responsible. Since then all presidents have used this AUMF to justify various uses of force that some Members of Congress feel go beyond its original purpose. Currently there is a proposal to terminate this AUMF which requires an act of Congress. (Based on H.R. 255 and S. 2391)

The last proposal seeks to give Congress greater authority over arms sales. Currently, all arms sales must be approved by the President, and Congress can only halt an arms sale with a majority vote, or more realistically a veto-proof majority. Members of Congress believe that it should be easier for Congress to halt an arms sale. They have introduced a proposal that would also ‘flip the script’ in this case by requiring that any arms sale over $14 million only proceed if Congress votes in favor. (Based on H.R. 5410 and S. 2391)

To bring the American people a voice at the table of the current debate on these various pieces of legislation, the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) has conducted an in-depth on-line survey of 2,702 registered voters with a probability-based sample provided by Nielsen Scarborough.

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