Congress, the Constitution and the Declaration of War

Segment 1: Simply Incapable of Declaring War.

Our guest on this edition of The Doug Noll show is Dr. Brien Hallett, an associate professor at the Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii. Dr. Hallett began his career as an English professor but soon got hooked on the topic of war and peace, and ended up switching gears to attain his Ph.D. in Political Science. His latest book is titled Declaring War: Congress, the President, and What the Constitution Does Not Say.


Dr. Hallett tells us that the constitution says Congress should make the decision for war or peace, but that actually never happens. He thinks Congress is simply incapable. In fact, the U.S. has been unable to declare war since 1789, even though we have been involved in numerous wars since that time.


Segment 2: A Constitutional Duty.

Essentially the President is allowed to start a war without asking permission from Congress. If Congress actually undertook its constitutional duty to argue and debate over the declaration or war, we would have a much more public and robust discussion about whether or not we should use force.


Dr. Hallett believes there are two main reasons this does not happen.  First of all, for 5,000 years Kings and Emperors have made this decision. Everyone expects the war leaders to make the decision whether or not to go to war. Secondly, Congress is too large and busy, and its primary function is to pass domestic laws. It is not built to accomplish a function such as declaring war. It is simply unable.


Segment 3: A Fourth Branch of Congress.

If Congress is not taking on the authority to declare war, then the people of the U.S. have very little say on whether or not we use force. This is a fundamental problem and a major flaw in the constitution. Dr. Hallett thinks we should change the constitution and he is proposing removing the power to make foreign policy (and declare war) out of Congress and establishing it in an independent branch of government. This fourth branch of Congress would have 50 members and would be elected by the state legislatures. Their job would be to conduct foreign policy and review the relationships between the U.S. and countries around the world. They would identify problems early and solve them by peaceful means.


Segment 4: Declaring War: Congress, the President, and What the Constitution Does Not Say.

Dr. Hallett says his book is meant to be disruptive, and he acknowledges that his proposal is, currently at least, politically impossible. He is just trying to get people to consider the problem and look at alternatives. The first step is to start the debate. It is not a question of political will; it’s a question of political structure. Congress is structured so that it cannot worry about foreign affairs. It can’t do what the 2nd Continental Congress did. That was a small group who would get together and discuss problems and find solutions. Today’s Congress is large and complicated – which is a good thing for domestic policy – but it doesn’t work for foreign affairs.


To listen to the complete interview:


Segment 1

Segment 2

Segment 3

Segment 4

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