When you’re a mathematician who analyses weapons systems as an independent consultant to the U.S. government, you pay attention to military appropriations (not least because you like to get paid). So it was eyebrow-raising to receive a message from just such a weapons analyst telling me how much he’d learned from Adam Cohen’s recent editorial, “Just What the Founders Feared: An Imperial President Goes to War.”
The editorial goes to the heart of the war-funding debate by describing the attitude of the Constitution’s framers toward presidential power, which they regarded with apprehension especially when it came to the monarchical prerogative of making war.
Cohen writes, “They were revolutionaries who detested kings, and their great concern when they established the United States was that they not accidentally create a kingdom.” [Emphasis added.] To keep that from happening, “they sharply limited presidential authority, which Edmund Randolph, a Constitutional Convention delegate and the first attorney general, called ‘the foetus of monarchy.’ ”
The editorial is emphatic about this. Although it appeared in The New York Times on July 23, it should have appeared five or six years ago — in late 2001 or early 2002, pick a date, but certainly before the invasion of Iraq. And here’s why:
The founders were particularly wary of giving the president power over war. They were haunted by Europe’s history of conflicts started by self-aggrandizing kings. [Emphasis added]. John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, noted in Federalist No. 4 that “absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal.”
Many critics of the Iraq war are reluctant to suggest that President Bush went into it in anything but good faith. But James Madison, widely known as the father of the Constitution, might have been more skeptical. “In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed,” he warned. “It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.” [Emphasis added.]
When the weapons analyst, who happens to be a friend and who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, read the last part of that sentence about the laurels, he says an image of Bush in a flight suit and the “Mission Accomplished” banner prominently displayed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln instantly came to his mind.
In that context the next paragraph was revelatory, solving what had been a mystery to him. It tells exactly how “the framers expected Congress to keep the president on an especially short leash on military matters.”
The Constitution authorizes Congress to appropriate money for an army, but prohibits appropriations for longer than two years. [Emphasis added]. [Alexander] Hamilton explained that the limitation prevented Congress from vesting “in the executive department permanent funds for the support of an army, if they were even incautious enough to be willing to repose in it so improper a confidence.”
“I had known but not understood why such appropriations never exceed two years,” my friend the weapons analyst wrote. “But there it is, Article 1 Section 8. I have developed a much deeper respect and appreciation for the honesty, integrity and foresight of the Founders. And, in addition to those qualities, they were smart.”
Yup, check the 12th clause of that article and section. It’s goddamn clever.
(Crossposted at HuffPo)