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What is the War Powers Act?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated: May 17, 2024

The War Powers Act of 1973 is a legislative action passed by the United States Congress limiting the powers of the President in regards to his ability to send US troops into combat. Officially designated the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the law was placed into Title 50 of the US Code. It was entered into consideration by the legislature as a joint resolution. After passing both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it was vetoed by the President. In a rare occurrence, Congress successfully overrode the veto, making the resolution a law on 7 November 1973.

According to the US Constitution, the President is the commander-in-chief. This means that he has the responsibility to repel attacks on the country and lead the Armed Forces in battle. Congress has the ability to declare war, establish the Armed Forces and control the funding for the military. By dividing the powers between the two branches, it prevents abuses of power and ensures actions taken by the Armed Forces are in the best interest of the nation. The War Power Act is designed to place additional limitations on the executive branch, mandating that this constitutional authority is maintained.

The content in the War Powers Act stipulates the exact parameters by which the President can activate the Armed Forces when protecting American interests. Without Congressional approval, the President is allowed to send troops abroad only in the event that the US is under attack or faces a serious threat. In addition, the President must inform Congress of any military action within 48 hours. The troops can only remain in combat for 60 days before withdrawing. Withdrawal must be completed within 30 days.

Congress was forced to pass the War Powers Act following the prolonged conflicts in both Korea and Vietnam. After World War II, the US found itself entrenched in the Cold War with communist nations. In an effort to avoid escalating the conflict to an actual war, the President chose to avoid declaring war in either country. Instead, the US launched police actions which continued for years. Despite the mandates in the Constitution, Congress found itself with very little control over the conflicts. In particular, action in Vietnam lasted nearly two decades and resulted in the deaths of 58,159 soldiers, stimulating strong public condemnation at home.

Since its passage, presidential power to wage war has been greatly limited. In order to activate the military in foreign lands, the President has been forced to obtain authorization from Congress to commit to combat operations. None of these situations, however, has officially been a declared war. On one occasion, the House of Representatives enacted the War Powers Act to influence the withdrawal of US combat troops from a conflict. President Bill Clinton was forced to pull the military out of Somalia in early 1994 following the Battle of Mogadishu, in which 19 soldiers were killed.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By RoyalSpyder — On Dec 14, 2013

@TruthRoller - I agree with you on that. Also, just as Viranty said, someone in leadership shouldn't make all the decisions. If it weren't for the War Powers Act, it wouldn't just be imbalance of power, but we can only imagine where our country would be.

By Viranty — On Dec 13, 2013

Though the President plays a role in military action, he doesn't declare war. As mentioned in the article, Congress has more power in that area. An informative piece, it does a good job at telling us the President’s true roles and responsibilities.

Some tend to think that because the President is at such a high position, he has the say in most decisions. War aside, many things are required to go through to Congress. As also mentioned in the article, it’s meant to prevent power from being abused. Overall, having a role in leadership and keeping that balance are important.

By TruthRoller — On Dec 13, 2013

Thank goodness for the War Powers Act. If it were not for this law, we would have surely gone to war with Syria.

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