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Book Project

You can download my dissertation here.

Congressional-Executive Relations and the Use of Military Force

In virtually every military crisis encountered by the United States, questions of the authority under which the president is acting (and whether the legislature should grant some kind of authorization) are heavily debated in Congress and in the press. Despite this, political science has given little attention to the war powers debate in domestic politics and even less to the effect such internal discussion has on perceived American credibility internationally. This project proposes a theory of how the war powers have worked in actual practice since the end of the Second World War, and then demonstrates the explanatory value of the theory through both quantitative and qualitative evidence. In contrast to the conventional wisdom of an "imperial presidency" and the irrelevance of congressional war powers since 1945, this project suggests questions of war powers have consistently featured prominently in both executive branch decision-making and in the perceived credibility of American threats in the eyes of U.S. allies and adversaries. 

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Chapter One--In the Shadow of Congress

How does Congress affect (1) the willingness of the President to utilize military force and (2) the outcomes of crises? The conventional wisdom of the “Imperial Presidency” (Schlesinger 1973), scholarship on unilateral action (Moe & Howell 1999, Howell 2003, Howell, Shepsle & Wolton 2021), and recent work on the decline of declarations of war over time (Irajpanah & Schultz 2021, Fazal 2018) and the rise of “states of emergency” (Rooney 2019) all suggest the deck is stacked against congressional power. At the same time, no President since Harry Truman has proven willing to actually enter a full scale war absent formal congressional approval. Moreover, there are several examples of Presidents in the last seventy years avoiding conflict because of a lack of formal congressional authorization. This chapter argues that a specific mechanism has been overlooked in the literature: the costs Congress can impose on the President for a unilateral use of force gone wrong—“loss responsibility costs”. A formal model introduced suggests not only that formal congressional authorization for the use of military force remains relevant in the postwar era, but also that these loss responsibility costs influence presidential behavior and crisis outcomes even when the President acts unilaterally.

Chapter Two--Quantitative Assessment

This chapter turns to empirically testing key propositions from the first chapter. First, a new dataset of “congressional support scores” is introduced. It utilizes speech data from the congressional record to measure sentiment toward the possible use of force in nearly two hundred U.S.-relevant crises from the end of the Second World War until today. A validation test of the scores suggests they are superior proxies to any other alternative—including measures such as the portion of Congress consisting of Republicans (McManus 2017) or presidential copartisans (Howell & Pevehouse 2007, Kriner 2010). Second, the influence of informal congressional sentiment and formal authorization on the President’s intervention decision is considered. Both are shown to be closely connected to whether a President chooses to intervene in a crisis—and, if so, how much force they employ. Lastly, the influence of congressional sentiment and formal approval for the use of military force on crisis outcomes is analyzed. The evidence yielded suggests that the United States is more likely to achieve victory in crises that have congressional backing.

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Chapter Three--The Korean War Anti-precedent

Scholars of the American war powers frequently cite the Korean War as a watershed case that ushered in an era of enormous growth in presidential war power when Truman classified the intervention as a mere “police action” not requiring congressional approval (Ely 1995, Fisher 2013, Schlesinger 1973). Ever since, the Korean conflict has served as a strong legal precedent for broad assertions of presidential power in the war initiation context. More often overlooked, however, is the political anti-precedent the Korean case has figured in presidential decision-making since June 1950. Indeed, Truman’s successors took a specific lesson away from the Korean War: by failing to have members of Congress publicly commit to armed intervention via a formal vote ex ante, they left themselves vulnerable to highly damaging congressional action ex post if the use of force did not end in victory. This chapter applies a disconfirmatory Large N Qualitative Analysis (Goertz & Haggard 2022) approach to the core claim of the Imperial Presidency thesis: presidents are willing and able to conduct major armed conflict absent the formal approval of the legislature. Focusing on the Y-generalization, “If a president was actually willing to conduct major combat operations, then they possessed or expected formal congressional authorization”, it demonstrates that after the anomalous Korean War there are no clear cases of presidents willing to sustain sizable American combat fatalities absent express congressional approval.

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Chapter Four--The Dogs that Didn’t Bark

The last chapter suggested that there was little evidence of presidents willing to actually engage in full-scale war absent formal congressional authorization. The focus on this chapter, instead, is on negative cases. Specifically, it seeks to identify cases in which force was avoided because of a lack of formal congressional approval. These cases are important to examine because the Imperial Presidency thesis suggests they should not exist. In contrast to the last chapter, in which the universe of positive cases was identified and tested, here the case selection is much more deliberate (Goertz 2017). Specifically, we seek to identify cases in which all possible confounding factors seem to suggest a willingness to intervene but for a lack of congressional approval. Seven cases—each taking place in a different presidential administration, and with a focus on hawkish presidents least likely to respect constitutional boundaries—demonstrate the widespread avoidance of conflict specifically due to a lack of formal authorization.

Chapter Five--A Watching World: The War in Vietnam

While the preceding two chapters focused on decision-making internal to the United States, this chapter extends the analysis to also focus on the watching world abroad. The Vietnam War is selected as a “least likely” case against which to test the theory. The period from the beginning of the Cold War until the end of the Vietnam War and the passage of the War Powers Resolution in 1973 is considered the zenith of the Imperial Presidency. When contemplating the use of military force in Southeast Asia in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, presidents possessed both a massive standing military and the clear example of Truman's "police action" in Korea as a precedent. Using archival research---including primary sources in both Chinese and Vietnamese---this chapter examines (i) congressional influence on presidential decision-making, (ii) international perceptions of American credibility based on congressional behavior, and (iii) White House concerns about international perceptions of American credibility based on congressional behavior. Looking at a series of crises---from the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu and Geneva Conference to the 1975 Fall of Saigon---evidence generally supports the expectations of the theory and contradicts the Imperial Presidency thesis.

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