The War Powers Act of 1973

History, Function, and Intent

Dennis Kucinich speaking at a podium
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On June 3, 2011, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) attempted to invoke the War Powers Act of 1973 and force President Barack Obama to withdraw American forces from NATO intervention efforts in Libya. An alternative resolution floated by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) scuttled Kucinich's plan and required the president to give further details about U.S. goals and interests in Libya. The congressional wrangling once again highlighted nearly four decades of political controversy over the law.

What Is the War Powers Act?

The War Powers Act is a reaction to the Vietnam War. Congress passed it in 1973 when the United States withdrew from combat operations in Vietnam after more than a decade.

The War Powers Act attempted to correct what Congress and the American public saw as excessive war-making powers in the hands of the president.

Congress was also attempting to correct a mistake of its own. In August 1964, after a confrontation between U.S. and North Vietnamese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving President Lyndon B. Johnson free rein to conduct the Vietnam War as he saw fit. The rest of the war, under the administrations of Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, proceeded under the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Congress had virtually no oversight of the war.

How the War Powers Act Is Designed to Work

The War Powers Act says that a President has the latitude to commit troops to combat zones, but, within 48 hours of doing so he must formally notify Congress and provide his explanation for doing so.

If Congress does not agree with the troop commitment, the president must remove them from combat within 60 to 90 days.

Controversy Over the War Powers Act

President Nixon vetoed the War Powers Act, calling it unconstitutional. He claimed it severely curtailed a president's duties as commander-in-chief. However, Congress overrode the veto.

The United States has been involved in at least 20 actions -- from wars to rescue missions -- that have put American forces in harm's way. Still, no president has officially cited the War Powers Act when notifying Congress and the public about their decision.

That hesitation comes both from Executive Office dislike of the law and from the assumption that, once they cite the Act, they start a timeframe during which Congress must evaluate the president's decision.

However, both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush sought Congressional approval before going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus they were complying with the spirit of the law.

Congressional Hesitation

Congress has traditionally hesitated to invoke the War Powers Act. Congressmen typically fear putting American troops in greater danger during a withdrawal; the implications of abandoning allies; or outright labels of "un-Americanism" if they invoke the Act.

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Jones, Steve. "The War Powers Act of 1973." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jones, Steve. (2023, April 5). The War Powers Act of 1973. Retrieved from Jones, Steve. "The War Powers Act of 1973." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).