In Fighting ISIS, One Congressman Hopes Less Is More

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MANUEL BALCE CENETA

By Hayes Brown

As President Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for expanding the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) beyond Iraq and into Syria, his administration has insisted that it already has the authority it needs to carry out military strikes wherever ISIS is a threat. But one Congressman is hoping a more tailored approach will allow for ISIS to eventually be defeated while still maintaining the balance of power between Congress and President.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has long been a critic of an overexpansive reading of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that first allowed the executive branch to target al Qaeda. Since its passage, the law has been used to justify strikes around the globe, in countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, many of which were carried out without the American public’s awareness. In attempting to provide a similar authorization against ISIS, so far the drafts currently being discussed are cast from a similar die, with few limits on the president’s ability to wage war.

Now Schiff is prepared to introduce his own version of an AUMF for taking on ISIS, one that he thinks harnesses “growing support behind the idea that we really need to have a vote on an authorization.” Speaking with ThinkProgress, Schiff said he found it “deeply ironic” that in laying out his strategy for ISIS, President Obama saw the need to approach Congress to approve $500 million to train and equip Syrian rebels, but “not for a multiyear military campaign.”

“The President has announced an offensive against ISIL that amounts to war, but Congress alone has the authority to do so within the Constitution,” Schiff said in the statement accompanying the bill’s release. “Congress need not wait for to be asked to approve such an authorization; it is our Constitutional obligation to approve or reject the use of force, and we must not adjourn without a vote.”

There are similarities between Schiff’s bill and one Sen. Bill Nelson introduced last week, including an expiration date built into the law and preventing the use of ground troops. But unlike other drafts currently circulating on the Hill, Schiff’s bill places hard limits on the time and space where operations against ISIS can take place. “The authorization in this section shall be confined to the territory of the Republic of Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic,” the bill reads. Likewise, the draft Schiff introduced will have a much shorter time-frame than Nelson’s: eighteen months will pass before re-authorization is needed, rather than three years.

Schiff isn’t worried that the idea of repealing the 2001 AUMF will be a hindrance to his bill. In fact, he thinks that it will be a net gain in terms of support. “I think that that sunset is something that may help obtain broader support on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “For members that are concerned about authorizing any use of military force, I think they’ll be attracted by sunsetting of old authorization. For those that feel that the old authorization is a poor description of the current fight with al Qaeda, there will be support for ‘revisiting’ … what that authorization should look like,” he continued, referencing Obama’s pledge to “revise and eventually repeal” the 2001 law.

So far, there are no co-sponsors lined up in the House and no companion bill in the Senate. But now that the bill, which was drafted over the weekend, is finished, Schiff is ready to attempt to gain support. “I think people increasingly uncomfortable with idea of adjourning without a vote,” he said, referring to the pending Congressional recess to begin the midterm campaign season. As the ACLU pointed out in a letter last Friday, urging Congress to stay until it has voted, there may be as few as four legislative days before the break begins. That would push off any vote until after the elections, a prospect the ACLU said “would mark an abdication by Congress of the war powers reserved for it under Article I of the Constitution.”

Schiff does anticipate eventual Congressional approval for the White House’s request for funding to train and equip Syrian rebels. “I think there will be sufficient support for the funding measure,” he said. He added, though, that “there are a lot of reservations about it, I have my own reservations about its prospects. At the same time it may be necessary to coordinate allies in the region. I think there’s a broad desire not to undercut the president’s efforts to assemble this coalition of nations.”

The House Rules Committee on Monday evening approved an amendment to provide the authorization for training the rebels, but the measure did not provide the requested additional funding. Instead, it calls on the Pentagon to submit re-programming or transfer requests to Congress to move around existing Department of Defense funds. It also provides that the Pentagon may accept contributions from foreign governments to carry out the training, provided Congress is first notified first. The amendment, which will be attached to the continuing resolution which will keep the government open past the end of the month, is due for a vote on Wednesday.