An Open Letter to Rep. John Joyce
January 23, 2020
On Jan. 9, 2020, U.S. Congressman John Joyce, M.D. (PA-13), released the following statement opposing the House Democrats’ War Powers Resolution:
“The Iranian Regime is no friend of the United States. Attempting to strip our Commander-in-Chief of the ability to protect American lives – during the week of an attack on our troops – is the wrong move. Congress should be standing together against Iranian threats and provocations.
“Under President Trump’s leadership, the United States has eliminated some of the most gruesome terrorists and dangerous threats. As a Member of Congress, I will continue to work alongside the President to support our Armed Forces and protect Americans at home and abroad.”
Dear Rep. Joyce,
I was concerned when I read the above news release from your office. I am worried that you might be participating in a long-running transfer of power from the U.S. Congress to the office of the president. This would go against the United States Constitution and the wishes and intent of our country’s Founding Fathers.
Let me be clear: This is not political. This is a sincere concern about how our country balances the power of the three branches of the federal government.
The Founding Fathers were very concerned about the balance of powers. They did not want any one of the three branches of the federal government to have enough power to overwhelm or undermine the other two.
I’m sure that as an educated man, you are aware of this. That’s why I don’t understand how you are apparently willing to allow the U.S. Congress to give its power to the office of the executive.
There are many examples of this shift in power. Some, but not all of them, have been continued (or expanded) by the current president. But this is not about the current president specifically. This is about a trend that I and others see in our democracy and which we are very concerned about.
One of the most important but inappropriate shifts of power is the power to commit the armed forces of the United States to a war.
Please allow me to explain my concerns. I hope that you will be willing to reply. We will publish your reply in these pages, unedited, just as you send them.
Transfer of power
To me, Rep. Joyce, your statement, as released, is a clear example of Congress passing its powers to the executive branch.
Only Congress can declare war. That the Constitution states very clearly. The website of the U.S. House of Representatives leaves no doubt. Article I, Section 8, states: “The Congress shall have Power ... To declare War ...”
Your statement, Rep. Joyce, declared, “Attempting to strip our Commander-in-Chief of the ability to protect American lives ...”
Congress is not stripping the president of anything. Congress is in fact retaining the authority that it has always had. You should be celebrating this decision, not criticizing it, unless you like taking a new job and losing power, authority prestige and the ability to do the job you were hired to do.
The power of war
The ability to commit the armed forces of the United States is a huge power. It involves the committing of the country’s resources and the lives of those who serve. It should never be done lightly or for the benefit of any entity other than our country as a whole.
The Founding Fathers were not sure which branch should have this power. They settled on a split, with the president having the power of the commander in chief and Congress having the power to declare war.
The sources that I have read said that their thinking was that because Congress was not always in session, the president would have the power to act quickly to repel an attack. Congress could then meet and decide if the country needed to go to war. Nowhere did I read that the intent of the writers of the Constitution was that the president could commit the nation to war. The president’s power was intended to allow a quick response and to have one commander should the nation go to war. But the president cannot take the nation to war.
This makes sense. The power to go to war should be decided by Congress, which is a body of more than 500 officials elected from across the nation. Putting that power solely in the hands of one person is dangerous. It not hard to imagine how a president with the sole power of the military could misuse that power.
Assassination or preventative strike?
Over the years, starting with the Korean War, the U.S. Congress has slowly allowed much of the ability to take the nation to war to become a power of the president.
This came to a head with the Vietnam War, when Congress realized what was happening and passed the War Powers Act. This is a federal law intended to check the power of the U.S. president to commit the United States to armed conflict without the consent of the United States Congress.
This is appropriate, given that the Constitution clearly gives only Congress the power to declare war.
The Jan. 3 strike on Iranian Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani raises questions about the War Powers Act and the president’s powers of war.
Just to be clear: I do not mourn Soleimani. His plans and orders killed many Americans. The world is a better place without him.
However, the strike on him does raise questions about what the president can and cannot do. If Soleimani was not an immediate threat to the U.S., then our killing of him was an assassination. In this case, we as a nation should consider whether we want to continue to carry out assassinations. If so, we must consider the consequences of that decision.
If Soleimani was an immediate threat, then the president’s order was justified. However, we must recognize that under the War Powers Act, the president should not then continue military action. Having acted to repel an immediate threat, the president must then turn the matter over to Congress, which will decide if additional military action is warranted – meaning that Congress will have to decide if our nation is going to war.
There are two recent problems regarding the War Powers Act.
One is that the current administration has not made it clear to America that there was an immediate threat.
The second is that past presidents, including President Barack Obama, carried out multiple drone strikes on enemies of the U.S. While militarily effective, such strikes muddy the water about what is war and what is a defensive action to protect our nation from imminent attack. The fact that both Democratic and Republican presidents have assumed the power to conduct war without the approval of Congress indicates how serious the problem has become.
The Soleimani situation
Yes, Soleimani was a danger. Yes, perhaps a previous strike on him should have been ordered. But simply striking an enemy of the United States out of the blue (literally) when there is no active threat makes it an assassination.
Many persons other than myself have concerns about the U.S. starting down the road of just assassinating foreign leaders. At first, this might seem like a good idea, or a good use of our military power to protect ourselves. But consider the consequences.
Nations have generally avoided assassinating each other’s leaders. Yes, it has happened in the past. But since the 1700s, nations have generally agreed that killing each other’s leaders causes problems instead of solving them.
This is specifically true for larger, more powerful nations like the U.S. While it might seem that killing a problem leader is a good idea, it actually gives advantages to smaller nations and armed groups that are not affiliated with nations, such as terrorist organizations.
Modern technology is making it easier to evade defenses and kill national leaders. Poisons and toxins have been developed that are easily concealed, easily smuggled and are deadly when deployed. The Russians have used poisons, including a radioactive one, to kill people they considered to be enemies of the state.
The U.S. is rightfully proud of its technology such as the Reaper drone that took out Soleimani. But we are not the only nation with that technology. Iran in particular has developed drone technology and can use them to conduct military strikes.
In such a world, the United States is not the only nation that could strike and kill a leader.
Technology isn’t needed, either. Imagine a scenario in which the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark T. Esper, decides to have lunch in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. As he walks across the sidewalk to his limo, a disguised assassin leaps from the crowd and stabs him with a long knife that had been hidden. Before Esper’s security can react, the secretary is stabbed multiple times. The attacker is wrestled to the ground, disarmed and arrested but the damage is done.
This act would require nothing more than the planting of a trained and dedicated person and the acquisition of a knife. No drone technology required.
What would the reaction of our nation be to such an attack? What would we call it? We would certainly call it an assassination attempt if Secretary Esper lived and an assassination if he does not.
If what we do to the leaders of other nations is considered to be straight assassination, without the element of an impending attack on our nation, then we are inviting the same kind of attacks here. We could hardly condemn the attack if we have done it to others.
This is why the element of an impending threat is so important. If there’s an impending threat, we are defending ourselves. If there is no impending threat, then we are carrying out an assassination and we should expect the same to happen to us. And we will not be able to claim the moral high ground.
Who I am
Having published this during a time of extreme tribal politics in the U.S., my words are going to be misunderstood and I’m going to be accused of all kind of things. So, to be clear, let me state the following for the record.
First, this is not a political letter. I am expressing a genuine concern as a constituent of Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District.
I am writing as a taxpaying U.S. citizen. I am a husband of 26 years and the father of two. My son is serving in the United States Navy aboard the USS Texas submarine. My daughter is an education major at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I am very proud of both.
I have been a conservative and registered Republican since my college days. I am a sworn municipal police officer and the owner of two small businesses. I employ about a half-dozen people.
I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Indiana University of Pa. (1989) and an MBA from the University of Maryland, 1999. I have taught at Penn State Altoona since 2001.
I would welcome and appreciate a response which is not tinged with partisan politics, but which clearly expresses how the U.S. House of Representatives will resume following the U.S. Constitution.
– Allan J. Bassler
PS. Thank you for visiting Williamsburg recently.