For seven months, the United States has been engaged in military action — war, to put it plainly — against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Yet it’s not clear that Congress will provide explicit authorization for airstrikes and the commitment of uniformed advisors.

President Obama in February asked Congress to approve an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the fanatical and bloodthirsty group that has scored significant military victories, and the administration insists that a new authorization is a priority. But it’s hedging its bets by continuing to insist that it already possesses legal authority to wage war under action taken by Congress in 2001 that authorized the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan and a 2002 resolution approving President George W. Bush’s use of force against “the continuing threat posed by Iraq” — the Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, that is.

Moreover, the administration seems to regard a new resolution as primarily symbolic. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said approval of the administration’s proposed language would “dispel doubt that might exist anywhere that Americans are united in this effort.”

True, but that’s not the principal reason for Congress to act. A new AUMF is necessary primarily because it’s legally and politically wrong for the administration to rely on congressional enactments more than a decade old that arose from vastly different circumstances.

Unfortunately, those resolutions may continue to provide the only legal scaffolding for this war, because Congress can’t agree on a new one. Some Republicans think Obama’s proposal, which would expire after three years and prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” is too timid. But Democrats also have problems with the president’s language, including the fact that it would authorize military force against Islamic State not just in Iraq and Syria, but anywhere else.

It’s ironic that some Republican senators who tried to insinuate themselves in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program — clearly the province of the president — are apparently willing to give the president a pass and not assert their much clearer constitutional responsibility to authorize war against Islamic State.

As for the Democrats who worry about giving Obama too much latitude in a new resolution, they too will be complicit if the president continues to wage war as he likes by citing the flimsy authority of the post-9/11 AUMF, which authorized the use of force against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.”

Democrats and Republicans in Congress must resolve their differences with each other — and with the White House — and do their duty.

Los Angeles Times

Coal mine clean up,

safety needs funding

Eastern Kentuckians in Harlan and Perry counties recently received two reminders of why Congress should get behind President Barack Obama’s plan to accelerate payments for cleaning up safety and health hazards from abandoned coal mines.

On March 6, an abandoned underground mine blew out above the historic coal town of Lynch in Harlan County, sending a torrent of mud and debris into the downtown and buckling a major road.

Fortunately, no one was injured and only basements were flooded. But such lurking physical legacies of a century of coal mining are poor advertisements for economic development in a region that desperately needs new businesses and jobs.

In Perry County, three recent landslides were caused by damage from past mining, and the state says repairs will cost $1.32 million.

The state has yet to estimate what it will cost to stabilize the underground mine that flooded Lynch.

But the cleanups and repairs in Harlan and Perry counties will move ahead of other known hazards from abandoned mines that Kentucky has listed for repair.

Kentucky will get just $18.2 million in fiscal year 2015 to clean up an inventory of $344 million in high-priority hazards from abandoned mine lands.

The money comes from a federal tax levied on the coal industry for the specific purpose of cleaning up damage and hazards from old mining. The abandoned mine lands fund contains almost $2.5 billion owed to places such as Harlan and Perry counties.

And, yet, Congress traditionally sits on most of the money the coal industry has paid to clean up after itself, dribbling out funding in amounts far short of what’s needed.

Obama’s latest budget proposes releasing $1 billion over the next five years — $200 million annually — to hasten the cleanup and also to help jump-start the economies in poor Appalachian places that have been hit hard by the coal industry’s decline.

In Kentucky, the $344 million estimate is far below actual need — as the recent mud-fests illustrate. Neither the Harlan nor Perry mines were on the state’s inventory of abandoned mine sites prioritized for repair.

Almost one in 10 Kentuckians live near an abandoned mine, and many of the hazards won’t be known until an old mine blows or slides into roads and houses or poisons a water source, threatening property values and lives.

If only Capitol Hill oozed with mud and poisons, we might see some action. Congress, especially the Kentuckians in Congress, should support sending the AML money where it’s owed — now.

Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader

Just in time for Sunshine Week — the annual celebration of open government and transparency — Congress has taken up bipartisan legislation that will strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 requires agencies to consider FOIA requests under a “presumption of openness” while restricting the application of exemptions to situations where a specifically identifiable harm could occur.

It recently won an important endorsement from Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley and unanimous support from his committee.

“The government ought to be accountable to the people, and transparency yields accountability,” Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a news release. “This bill takes an important step to stop agencies from hiding behind an exemption solely to protect their public image.”

The bill is supported by many groups, including the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

“There’s no sensible argument against it,” Danielle Brian, executive director of that group, told The Washington Post.

A similar bill last year seemed poised for passage. It, too, had bipartisan support, but the clock ran out in December after the Senate dithered. This time, there’s no excuse to keep a good bill from becoming law.

The federal Freedom of Information Act, along with similar laws in all 50 states, is based on a simple notion: Government that acts in the people’s name must keep the people informed.

Government business is the people’s business, and there should be only rare circumstances when government information cannot be public.

Missouri residents, for instance, should be able to find out details about what the FBI’s investigations into the Ferguson police force uncovered. Or what the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds during inspections.

Journalists often use FOIA, but it isn’t just — or even mainly — for journalists. It is for the citizens, based on the fundamental understanding that a functioning democracy requires an informed citizenry.

FOIA was signed into law in 1966. It has been amended several times, often to strengthen it in the wake of abuses such as the Watergate scandal or to modernize, as in 1996 when amendments took into account electronic records.

The FOIA Improvement Act appears to be well named. The bill would increase government transparency and citizen access to information. Congress should pass it. — Kansas City Star

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