Originally posted on Tomdispatch.com
By Tom Engelhardt
Nothing reminds us more of how much the American constitutional system has been transformed, of just how extreme the “imperial presidency” has become, than Congress’ generally woeful record in the second half of the last century and in the first years of this one to exert any significant control over or brakes on White House wars abroad. On such issues, Congress has generally lagged well behind public opinion—as in Vietnam, where its greatest power, the power of the purse, led to partially successful defunding efforts only in 1973 after all U.S. combat forces had been withdrawn and as the American war was limping toward its end.
Congress has been weak even at its moments of relative strength, as with the War Powers Resolution of 1973, and ineffective when it has actually moved, as in the Boland Amendment’s attempt to restrict the Reagan administration from funding and arming Nicaragua’s Contra movement in the early 1980s, which resulted in the Iran-Contra affair, a remarkably effective set of quasi-legal and utterly illegal evasions of Congress’ funding and arming strictures—until finally revealed in 1986. (And, of course, so many key figures in Iran-Contra returned to the Bush administration in 2001 in triumph and, as Seymour Hersh relates in his most recent New Yorker piece, two years ago they even convened a meeting, headed by Iran-Contra alumnus and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, to consider the “lessons” of the affair and essentially plot a new version of Iran-Contra to be run out of the vice president’s office.)
The imperial presidency has regularly run circles around an ever weaker Congress. Now, once again, we find ourselves at a moment where the public seems increasingly eager for Congress to rein in an out-of-control White House and its increasingly catastrophic policies, this time in the Middle East. Below, David Swanson explores these questions: What might the new Democratic Congress be willing to do when it comes to Iraq? What is it actually capable of doing? If it does manage to act in any half-significant way, will the Bush White House simply ignore it? Tom
Democratic Leaders May Prefer to Claim They Tried but Failed
The shortest route to ending the Iraq war (and preventing additional wars) is almost certainly through Congress. Influencing the White House directly is unimaginable, and stopping the war through the courts unlikely. Clearly, Congress is the way to go. But what specifically can Congress do?
How We Got Here
The peace movement lobbied a Republican Congress without success for four years. Then, on Nov. 7, 2006, the American public elected a Democratic Congress in a clear mandate delivered at the polls. Not a single new Republican was elected, and 30 new Democrats were ushered in, with voters overwhelmingly telling pollsters that they were voting against the war, and by “against the war” they meant “against the war,” not “against the escalation.” Remember, the president’s “surge” into Baghdad had not yet been announced.
Voters also appeared to be voting for accountability and possibly for the launching of impeachment hearings as well. Polls prior to the election found that a majority of Americans believed a Democratic Congress would impeach. Candidates who campaigned on the theme of accountability, including Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who promised impeachment, did well. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor impeachment or wish Bush’s presidency were over. Voters in November even booted out a couple of Republicans who had turned against the war, saying that they were voting for a Democratic majority so that the Democrats could investigate the war as well as end it—something a majority of Americans continue to say they want.
Prior to the election, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi had already ordered the Democrats in the House to oppose impeachment, but she had not ordered them to support the war. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), chaired by Congressman Rahm Emanuel, however, directed most of its financial support to candidates who did not call for ending the war. Of the 22 candidates funded by the DCCC, only eight won. The rest of the victorious Democratic challengers, many of them strongly opposed to the war, got themselves elected without Emanuel’s help.
Halfway Steps in the House
Of course, now that the election is over and the Democratic leadership has heard the people speak so clearly, now that, on Jan. 27, half a million Americans encircled the Capitol in opposition to the war, now that the new Congress has in its hands the power that the Republicans had a year ago, surely ending the war is at the top of its agenda.
Well, not according to Emanuel’s way of thinking, as reported in the Washington Post:
“For the rest of the year, Emanuel says, the leadership hopes to stress energy independence (with fuel-saving efficiency standards for appliances and cars) and a move toward better health care for children. And here’s what Emanuel doesn’t want to do: fall into the political trap of chasing overambitious or potentially unpopular measures. Ask about universal health care, and he shakes his head…. Reform of Social Security and other entitlements? Too big, too woolly, too risky…. The country is angry, and it will only get more so as the problems in Iraq deepen. Don’t look to Emanuel’s Democrats for solutions on Iraq. It’s Bush’s war, and as it splinters the structure of GOP power, the Democrats are waiting to pick up the pieces.”
So, clearly the question before us is not just what Congress can do to end the war, but also how the American public can persuade a Democratic Congress to want to end the war. Most Republican members of Congress still follow White House orders like sheep, and leading House Democrat Emanuel is openly telling the media that he’d just as soon have the war still going on in 2008. The war has cost an estimated 655,000 Iraqi lives and over 3,000 American ones in its first four years, with the death rate increasing over time, so by a safe estimate Emanuel has just written off perhaps another few hundred thousand lives for the sake of an electoral strategy.
Prior to the recent congressional recess, Congressman Jack Murtha proposed that he draft a new bill, agreeing to throw $93 billion or so at the war in the form of another “emergency supplemental” outside the regular federal budget. That may not sound like an antiwar proposal, but it certainly passed for one in Washington, D.C. In fact, Murtha was pilloried by Republicans and much of the media because he proposed including requirements that troops be properly rested, trained and equipped before being sent to Iraq. Murtha argued that these requirements would force Bush to end his “surge.”
In a climate in which opposition to the “surge” had become confused with opposition to the war, Murtha’s plan was, amazingly enough, treated as the near equivalent of pacifism. And no strong defense of it emerged from the Democratic leadership. Instead the plan evolved into a proposal to require the president to inform Congress when he was deploying troops lacking adequate rest, training or equipment. But it is unclear how this would even curtail the present escalation, much less end the war, and there has been no indication of what Congress would do if Bush failed to obey this reporting requirement.
Bizarrely, this whole discussion has taken place without any reference to the fact that, in November 2003, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, which placed limits on the number of days that a member of the armed forces could be deployed. Bush signed that bill into law, but added a signing statement announcing his intention to disregard that section. The U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to sign bills into law and enforce them, or to veto them. There is no constitutional middle course. Yet Bush has routinely used signing statements to announce his plans to disregard portions of bills he signs into law. This abuse might be addressed by impeachment proceedings, something the Democrats are not currently considering. But short of addressing this abuse, Congress members could at least behave as though they were aware of it.
Wholehearted House Actions
Numerous peace and justice organizations seeking to end the war are urging Congress members to vote “no” on the $93-billion supplemental bill. At the same time, they are watching closely for possible amendments to the bill that could require the money be spent on a rapid withdrawal. Such amendments might be introduced and voted on in the House Appropriations Committee, on which Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., serves, along with Murtha, or they might be introduced and voted on in the full House.
If a bill provided billions of dollars for the war but required that it all be spent on the withdrawal of troops, and if such a bill passed both houses of Congress, the president would be unable to veto it without denying himself a source of funding he badly wants. And there is at least a chance that Congress would take umbrage and pay attention if he canceled the end of the war with another of his signing statements.
Other possibilities for ending the war in the House include not passing a supplemental bill at all, or passing one of the four bills that have been introduced (by Reps. Lynn Woolsey, Jim McGovern, Jerrold Nadler and Dennis Kucinich) that would use the power of the purse to try to bring the war to an end. There are also several bills that would instruct the president to end the war while continuing to fund it, an approach that seems more likely to pass both houses of Congress, but far less likely to achieve anything close to their stated goal.
Sen. Russ Feingold held hearings in January on the constitutional power of the Congress to end a war. One point on which there seems to be consensus: Congress has the constitutional power to control what money is spent on (even if that power has hardly been touched in any meaningful way in recent years). If Congress says no more money can be spent on the war, then that is the law of the land—although the history of the Iran-Contra scandal, the secret beginning of the current Iraq war, and operations now underway in Iran remind us that the law of the land and the acts of the White House can sometimes be two separate matters.
Congressman Kucinich’s bill is brand new. The other three House bills have been in play for some weeks. While Congressman Nadler’s bill does not have the support among his colleagues that Woolsey’s and McGovern’s do (thanks to both friendships and political alliances), Nadler has perhaps done the best job of crafting a bill in which Congress could make use of its undisputed power to end the war. While the other two bills first instruct Bush to end the war in a specific period of time, and only afterward forbid the use of additional funds for [a war] now theoretically over, Nadler’s bill immediately restricts the use of any money appropriated by Congress to withdrawing the troops from Iraq.
Actually, Nadler’s bill restricts the use of funds to protecting the troops and withdrawing them. He admits that the “protecting the troops” part is a bit of nonsense, since the only way to protect them is to withdraw them. But all of these bills have been written with a keen eye to repelling the commonplace criticism that bringing our troops safely home somehow constitutes a failure to “support the troops.”
Senate Shortcomings and Opportunities
A new sideways approach to ending the war without saying you’re ending it is only now emerging in the Senate. This one involves “reauthorizing” the war. This war was, of course, never declared but pre-authorized to be launched at the president’s discretion for the purpose of eliminating Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction and combating those falsely alleged to have been behind the attacks of 9/11. The facts have already repealed that authorization, but it would be useful for Congress to do so as well.
Actually reauthorizing the war, on the other hand, would undoubtedly be less useful, as it might appear to the public to be support for the war; while any aspects of the reauthorization aimed at slowly ending the war will surely be viciously attacked by the administration and its supporters. In fact, that’s already begun. The White House is denouncing any attempts to restrict the war as “micromanagement” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced that Bush will probably disregard restrictions placed on the war by Congress. Rice was asked in a broadcast interview whether the president would feel bound by legislation seeking to withdraw combat troops within 120 days. “The president is going to, as commander in chief, need to do what the country needs done,” she replied. This brazenly unconstitutional stance is another one of those “details”—like Bush’s past signing statements—that Congress might do well to bear in mind and cease trying to ignore.
There are a couple of possible ways the Senate might get around this. One would simply be not to pass the Pentagon’s supplemental spending bill—something that 41 senators could accomplish through a filibuster. The other would be to pass Sen. Russ Feingold’s bill to stop funding the war, which would obviously require a far higher voting hurdle than that filibuster. Passing a bill would involve gathering a majority—and overriding a veto to maintain it, a two-thirds vote in both houses. The filibuster, however, presents another kind of hurdle in that it requires some senator or group of senators to find the decency and courage to begin it, uncertain of success.
Legislating a Unitary Executive
What is lost in all of these strategy discussions, of course, is the question of whether any sort of congressional cutoff of funds would actually truncate either the surge or the war. Remember, the president and vice president began the preparations for the invasion of Iraq secretly with at least $2.5 billion illegally taken from other areas. They have promised never to end the war. They have asserted the power of a “unitary executive.” They have launched prewar operations in Iran without any authorization or funding from Congress. They have built permanent bases in Iraq without any approval from Congress, and continued that construction work in violation of a bill passed by Congress forbidding the use of any funding for it.
So, the question is not just whether Congress can cut off the money, but whether the Bush administration can find enough money in other places illegally to continue a war that has never in any sense been legal. The amount of money we’re talking about is enormous, but it is a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget, and it seems clear that—given the kinds of “black budget” moneys floating around in that world—the war could be continued for some time (long enough at least to gin up a new enemy to scare Congress with); that is, unless the military sides with Congress in this dispute and refuses to pursue the war with misappropriated funds.
If any of these strategies to end the war come to fruition in Congress, a more likely outcome than an actual end to the war would be a full-scale confrontation with the “commander-in-chief” presidency of George Bush (and the vice presidency of Dick Cheney), leading to possible impeachment proceedings.
Here’s the reality, however: None of these strategies are likely to advance very far very soon. A movement for impeachment now might strengthen the hand of those in Congress who want to move on ending the war. During the Vietnam War, the peace and impeachment efforts aided each other. And the Democrats then won the next elections, something they failed to do after choosing not to pursue impeachment proceedings against Ronald Reagan for the Iran-Contra scandal.
What Could Change
Two events on the horizon might change this outlook. One is an attack on Iran. Congressmen Kucinich and John Conyers have said they favor launching the impeachment process if the Bush administration attacks Iran. Needless to say, it would be better to begin proceedings to impeach in order to prevent an attack on Iran, but that is unlikely in the present political atmosphere.
The other event that could take us all surprising places is the completion of the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The evidence made public by that trial points to an urgent need for impeachment proceedings against Vice President Cheney. The evidence suggests that Cheney was the driving force behind the campaign of retribution against ex-Ambassador Joseph Wilson, including the outing of his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame. Journalist Murray Waas has indicated some of the points that cry out for investigation. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has urged Cheney to “come clean,” offer an explanation for his actions, or resign. A blogger with the handle emptywheel has drafted a mock indictment of Cheney, and Wil S. Hylton has recently published possible articles of impeachment against the vice president in the men’s fashion magazine GQ.
It seems everyone’s getting into the act, except Congress. But Congress could do so. The evidence uncovered by the Libby trial did not exist when Pelosi ordered impeachment “off the table” a year ago. Among the public, there is a lot of fear that impeaching Bush (and removing him from office) would give us a President Cheney. By impeaching the incredibly unpopular Cheney first, Congress would allay these fears. Impeaching Cheney might actually unite the mood of the public with that of Congress more easily than the impeachment of George W. Bush—under the motto: Business Before Pleasure—Impeach Cheney First!
In the meantime, the Democrats’ strategy of letting the war continue, not thoroughly investigating the fraud that launched it and not holding the war-makers accountable may prove not to be the electoral winner that party figures like Emanuel expect. It might even prove a political equalizer and so a loser in 2008 or beyond. Every day that the Democrats don’t move to end the war in Iraq is another day in which that war, stretching ever on, can become the Democrats’ war. Only if they come to believe that the war’s unpopularity will work against them in the voting booths in 2008 or thereafter will they be strongly motivated to take the sorts of actions that might actually bring it to an end.
David Swanson is the Washington director of Democrats.com and co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America and of the Backbone Campaign. He serves on a working group of United for Peace and Justice. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including being press secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign. His website is davidswanson.org.
© 2007 David Swanson