War Powers

The War Powers High School Dance

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, September 10, 2014, 12:47 PM

The boy and the girl are clearly smitten with one another. They both want to dance; he badly wants to ask her, and she wants to be asked. But neither is sure exactly what the other wants. He's not sure she will say yes, if he asks, and she's sure as heck not going to approach him. Neither wants to risk the humiliation of raising the subject only to be shot down. And, truth be told, they have a bit of a history of shooting each other down. So they circle each other, they flirt, they say things that seem to invite the other to ask. But neither signals clearly enough that if the other asks, he or she is really committed. Juvenile? Sure, but then again they are in high school.

This high-school dating dynamic is more or less also the one between the supposed adults at the White House and Congress over that grand dance at the Separation of Powers Sock Hop. The tune is authorizing force against ISIS. Whatever the White House may say on the subject, the executive branch does, in fact, want authorization from Congress for what it's going to do in Iraq and Syria. The last thing the president needs is a protracted use of force that lacks the buy-in of the people's representatives, a use of force for which he has to take sole political responsibility. For all the reasons Jack has advanced, it is important for the operation's legitimacy that it not be predicated on Article II authority alone, and President Obama surely knows this. He wants this dance with Congress.

What he does not want, however, is to ask for congressional authorization. And who can blame the guy? He asked her last year, and he got burned. Asking the girl to dance and having the answer be no is far worse than not asking---and all his friends knew about it. If she turns him down again, the girl will make sure they know this time too. The legitimacy of an Article II-based operation is far more questionable if the president has asked Congress to dance and Congress has refused than if the boy can claim---however implausibly---to be dancing by himself because he doesn't want to be dancing with her. So the White House signals that it would like to dance with Congress---saying it will consult with her, that it invites her support---but the boy stops short of anything like a formal request, and he insists that he's happy to dance alone.

She, meanwhile, taunts him. All the boys are dancing. Is he really going to be the one to slink into a corner? But she does not promise that if he asks her, she will say yes. She's not going to make up her mind about that until he does ask. Because her friends are watching too, and the last thing she wants is to be seen as having asked him to ask her only to find out that he really doesn't want to dance with her. And she knows she humiliated him last year and certainly doesn't want to show either that she regrets having done so or has changed her mind. She has warring instincts still, and she doesn't want to have to decide, because if anything goes wrong, she wants it to be his fault, not hers. That's important to her.

So they stare at each other, as the minutes tick down towards the dance's end. There are only a few legislative days left on the calendar. And if he doesn't speak up, they'll both be on their own at least until Homecoming.