Joyce Appleby: Warring Ambitions

Roundup: Historians' Take

Joyce Appleby is a professor of history emerita at UCLA and the author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism."

James Madison would have smiled had he heard about President Obama's maneuver, seemingly in defiance of the War Powers Act, to avoid asking Congress to authorize military action in Libya.

The act, passed in 1973, came at a time when the Vietnam War had been underway for years without any president asking for congressional approval. Members of Congress wanted future presidents to be obliged to come to them early on in a military action.

The Constitution, after all, had invested in Congress the sole power to declare war. And it rankled legislators that no president had sought congressional approval of a war since 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress the day after Pearl Harbor. The War Powers Act was expected to put a stop to presidential impunity in entering armed conflicts by requiring presidents to notify Congress within 48 hours of sending troops into action, and to begin withdrawing them after 60 days unless Congress voted to authorize the action.

Since the act's passage, the country has gone to war many times under various guises, but presidents have blithely continued to act without congressional approval. The Libyan engagement has presented an ideal occasion for Congress to press the issue....

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