Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The law of the stronger: a winning paper at SAIS Europe

Shawn Finlen examines the fraught question of who in the United States has the authority to declare war in a paper that won SAIS Europe's highest academic award this spring. He notes that the 1973 War Powers Resolution failed in its goal to rein in presidential war power, and he argues for muscular legislation to reassert Congress's authority in declaring war.

Shawn, who will spend his second year at SAIS in DC next year, was one of four students to receive C. Grove Haines Awards for academic excellence at this year's commencement ceremony. You can read Shawn's paper here. Below, he answers some of our questions about his paper.

Q: How did you get the idea for the paper?
Finlen: The idea came from discussions and readings in Professor David Unger’s course, "Policies and Politics of the American Emergency State." It seemed like a good time to write on the topic, given that Senators Tim Kaine and John McCain had recently proposed the War Powers Consultation Act of 2014 to replace the original 1973 War Powers Resolution.

Q: What was the main point?
Shawn Finlen
Finlen: The War Powers Resolution has not worked as intended. Presidents since 1973 have used military force without Congressional approval on numerous occasions, and the Resolution has actually given them more freedom to act independently of Congress.

The War Powers Consultation Act of 2014 is the latest attempt to reform the original law, but it is my opinion that, if passed, it would fail to alter the fundamental relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches vis-à-vis war powers. My paper examines cases where presidents initiated the use of force without Congress’s approval and attempts to draw lessons for reform efforts.

Q: What was the hardest part of your work on the paper?
Finlen: There is a great deal of literature on the War Powers Resolution, so it was time-consuming to sift through the background material and determine what was relevant for the paper. Also, with so much written on the topic, especially from constitutional scholar Louis Fisher, I had to find something new to say. With the recent proposal of the reform bill, I think that provided a different angle from which I could examine the issue.

Q: What tips would you give to incoming students as they prepare to write papers here?
Finlen: Write about something that interests you, otherwise the research will be tedious. I enjoyed scrutinizing the nuances of legislative language, so the background reading was engaging.

Second, come up with a clear research question before diving into the paper. My research question set my outline and determined the relevant research I needed to conduct. Academic writing seminars at SAIS were instrumental in this process.

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