1995: Effort to Replace War Powers Act With Use of Force Act

Joe Biden tried to clarify the role of Congress in U.S. military actions and to challenge executive overreach, but his legislation did not gain momentum.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., gestures during a Democratic Capitol Hill news conference in Washington Tuesday, Sept. 26, 1995, to discuss the federal budget. Negotiations continue on a stopgap spending measure to pay for government operations while the Clinton administration and Congress wrangle over the various appropriations bills.  Sen. Pete Domenici, R- N.M., is at right.   (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., gestures during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 1995. Photo: Dennis Cook/AP

One of Joe Biden’s most consistent positions during his time in the Senate was his demand that presidents abide by the 1973 War Powers Act, passed in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia. A co-sponsor of the legislation in his first year in office, Biden frequently accused presidents of refusing to abide by it by obfuscating issues of imminence of both threats and impending U.S. military action. After spending more than two decades fighting to hold presidents to the terms of the law, Biden declared that the law was “ineffective,” charging that it had “failed to fulfill its intent.” He noted that in the years since its enactment, the War Powers language had been hotly debated by presidents and lawmakers and “contributed to frequent squabbles about the minutiae of the law’s provisions” instead of imposing clear limits on executive overreach. In March 1995, Biden introduced the Use of Force Act to revise the War Powers Act. “The status quo — with presidents asserting broad executive power and Congress often content to surrender its constitutional powers — serves neither branch,” Biden said.

Under Biden’s act, the president would be required to:

adhere to principles of necessity and proportionality such that: (1) force may not be used for purposes of aggression; (2) the President shall have determined, before the use of force, that the objective could not have been achieved satisfactorily by means other than the use of force; (3) the use of force shall be exercised with levels of force, in a manner, and for a duration essential to and directly connected with the achievement of the objective; and (4) the diplomatic, military, economic, and humanitarian consequences of the action shall be in reasonable proportion to the benefits of the objective.

It also sought to restrict the scope of situations in which a president could use force. These situations included military action to repel an attack on the United States, to rescue U.S. citizens in peril, to confront “situations threatening supreme U.S. interests,” to stop or confront specific acts of terrorism, and “to defend against substantial threats to international sea lanes or airspace.” It also would have required a congressional declaration of war or a specific use-of-force authorization after 60 days of military action. Biden’s bill received no co-sponsors and died before it gained any momentum.

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