This time, for better or worse, is different. The arguments both for and against a limited use of American force are reasonable, and congressional leaders are correct when they say this is a matter of conscience. I happen to believe the United States’ credibility in the world is at stake here and that restoring an international norm against the use of poison gas is important. My guess is that, should a full-fledged debate take place, members will acquit themselves well.
What I don’t want to see is a chaotic process that leaves the U.S. appearing divided and indecisive, with the president forced to wonder how to “consult” with a disorganized Congress in which power is diffused. There is a better way, but it requires a regular mechanism for consultation. A few years ago, a bipartisan National War Powers Commission, of which I was a member, came up with a pragmatic framework that would create a routine process for the president and Congress to follow. It would require the president to consult with congressional leaders before any military action expected to last more than one week — and then would require Congress to declare itself, either by voting to approve action or, if that resolution fails, to allow for a vote to disapprove military involvement.
Had this structure been in place already, a high-stakes vote on Syria wouldn’t seem so unusual, and the consultative process would have been far less messy. My hope, once this is over, is that the idea will gain greater currency. When international crises arrive, a routine process that’s allowed our political leaders to build credibility with each other would save them a lot of heartburn.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University Bloomington. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.