5 Questions with Senator Tim Kaine on War Powers and National Defense


This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series.  Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy.  Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week, I spoke with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees and Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Near East, South and Central Asian Affairs.  He recently sponsored the War Powers Consultation Act. This bill would, among other things, replace the War Powers Act of 1973 and bring the Congress back into decisions on the deployment of our armed forces. The law would require the President to consult with and report to a Joint Congressional Consultation Committee prior to any military operation lasting or expected to last more than a week (with some key exceptions including covert operations and humanitarian missions). Within 30 days, the Joint Congressional Consultation Committee would have to introduce a joint resolution approving armed force. 


1.  Senator Kaine thanks so much for joining us. You’ve become a key leader on defense and foreign policy issues.  One of your latest bills, co-sponsored with Senator McCain, is perhaps your most ambitious and significant piece of legislation yet: the War Powers Consultation Act.  The language of the bill is very clear that it is not meant to address constitutional war powers.  But aren’t constitutional powers at the heart of the matter? Or is this more about establishing new norms between the executive and legislative branches on decisions to go to war?

It’s a pleasure to discuss our efforts on this with you, Ryan.

What our bill attempts to do is codify a practical process between the Executive and Legislative branches of government over decisions of war.  I do think the framers of the Constitution had a clear view: Congress must formally approve the initiation of significant military action and the President, as Commander-in-Chief, is responsible for the day to day management of a military action once initiated.  But while the constitutional language is clear, the American practice has been anything but consistent.  Congress has only declared war 5 times while Presidents have initiated military action well over 120 times.

I believe the American public deserves a much clearer dialogue between the two branches justifying decisions about war.  When Congress and the President communicate openly and reach consensus, the American public is informed and most likely to support decisions about military action.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution has not worked as intended, and many argue it is unconstitutional. That is why we are proposing the War Powers Consultation Act (WPCA).   It would clarify the consultation process between the Legislative and Executive branches of government and detail Congressional procedures requiring all Members take a vote of support or opposition for any significant military action.  What the WPCA does not intend to do is decide the centuries-long debate between the Executive and Legislative branches of government.  It does however codify a process so the Executive and Legislative branches work together.

2.  Similar bills were put forward in 1988, 1989, 1995, and 2009. What is different now about the political climate or the content of your bill that makes it more likely to pass?

The issue of war powers is no doubt a question that Members of Congress have grappled with and thought about, as have diplomats and scholars and administration officials, for some time.

Especially at the end of over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m hopeful my colleagues would agree that we owe it to our troops to clear up any confusion in how we make these critical decisions.  Requiring a volunteer military force to risk their lives in battle without a clear political consensus supporting their mission is wrong.

3.  You’ve obviously thought a lot about our ongoing conflicts and are aware of the contributions made by your constituents in serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Do you have a single critical lesson you think the Congress should take away in terms of American strategy and objectives from this decade at war?

My passion for War Powers comes from a frustration that Congress and the Executive have been sloppy about process and communication over decisions of war. We have put these past two wars on the credit card.  Presidents tend to overreach and Congress sometimes willingly ducks tough votes and decisions. We all have to do better.

I’ve also thought a lot about the Authorization for Use of Military Force that passed one week after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  It is still in force today. The Authorization is broadly worded and both the Bush and Obama Administrations have given it an even broader interpretation.  In hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Administration officials expressed the opinion that the Authorization of September 18, 2001 might justify military action for another 25 to 30 years, in regions spread across the globe, against individuals not yet born, or organizations not yet formed, on 9/11.

It’s hard to imagine this being contemplated by Congress or the American public in 2001. And now, as Congress grapples with the status of the Authorization and whether it should be continued, repealed or revised, we face immediate decisions about the reduction of American troops in Afghanistan and the size of a residual presence we will leave in that country to support the Afghan National Security Forces.  We are wrestling with the scope of national security programs adopted in furtherance of the Authorization.  And, we are engaged in serious discussion about new challenges—from the civil war in Syria to growing nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea.

All of these issues are hard.  But I believe we can clean up the process by which the President and Congress communicate and consult over decisions of war.

4.  Many members of the pro-defense old guard on the Hill have retired while the Tea Party has become a force to be reckoned with. How has this changed the politics of defense appropriations and budgeting? Is this more due to changes in the Republican Party, or is this a broader bi-partisan shift reflecting changes across the country?

It’s tough for me to reflect on how things used to be after only one year in office. However, I would say defense remains a strongly bipartisan area. I’ve witnessed it in my role on the Armed Services Committee, as well as working closely with the Virginia delegation—across chambers and party lines—to support our national defense. During the budget process last year, I often said I thought prospects for a deal would actually start in Armed Services.  For instance, on the issue of sequestration—which was created to be so onerous that Congress would act, and we did act—it was the efforts of many of us on the committee that called attention to the impact to our nation’s readiness, and in my opinion, a big reason we were ultimately able to find a bipartisan budget agreement. We—Republicans and Democrats—agree a lot of the time that certain issues need to be addressed, we just don’t always agree on how best to resolve them. There’s a lot more bipartisanship around here than folks think.

5.  At the end of a long day in committee hearings, what do you fill your glass with to unwind?

Virginia Gentleman Bourbon—never mix, never worry.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest. He is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet