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Hiding in the Center

The Senate’s too passive to cut off surge funding. Democrats aren’t weak in numbers – just courage.

March 3rd, 2007 · Written by · No Comments

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing in February on whether certain civilian officials in the Pentagon manipulated intelligence to support the Administration’s decision to go to war against Iraq four years ago. At the end of the hearing, the committee’s new chairman, Senator Carl Levin, wagged his finger at the Pentagon’s Inspector General, calling the report the most “devastating” he’d seen in his Senate career. Levin, it seemed, hadn’t been quite steamed about anything in a while – including the President’s recent unveiling of the troop “surge.”

The most obvious reaction to the hearing is to wonder just how many “reports” on that subject the Senate needs? Or, as conservative columnist David Brooks has pointed out – in light of what is (or isn’t, rather) going on in the Senate – why aren’t they discussing the most significant change in military strategy since the invasion of Iraq instead of pre-war intelligence, which, at least for the moment, is better left to historians?

This digression into irrelevancy is characteristic of the continuing impotency of our Congress – yes, the present Democratic Congress. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) angrily noted recently that the Senate was “debating the debate,” not the issue, and that the situation was “close to anarchy.”

What’s going on here?

“The one thing all the major Democratic proposals have in common is that they are purely symbolic resolutions,” he wrote. Behind all the bluster they have “all the force of a postcard.”

John Yoo addressed this question in a recent New York Times op/ed piece he co-authored, entitled “Why Are the Pacifists So Passive?” Yoo is the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General who authored the infamous legal memoranda giving refuge to the White House by narrowly defining torture, restricting the right of habeas corpus, and putting the Geneva Conventions out of the reach of enemy combatants. Hardly in sympathy with the peace movement, Yoo is a hearty arch-conservative. And whether you agree with Yoo’s take law and government, much of his Times piece was right on.

Yoo describes current activity in Congress as a “political circus,” citing the juggling act carried on over various bills supposedly designed to “rein in” the president.

“The one thing all the major Democratic proposals have in common is that they are purely symbolic resolutions,” he wrote. Behind all the bluster they have “all the force of a postcard.”

While legislative maneuvering was taking place in the Senate over the Levin-Biden-Hagel-Warner versions of a non-binding resolution, the leadership totally ignored two other Democratic proposals that actually had some teeth – one by Russell Feingold to stop funding the war, another by Barack Obama to mandate troop reductions.

Next, Yoo correctly points out that Congress does indeed have the constitutional power to end the war. The power is in the purse, so to speak. One check the Founding Fathers placed on the President’s authority to wage war, is that if the conflict costs anything (and conflict always costs a ton), the money’s got to come from Congress. Not only can they cut off money, they can restrict how that money is used.

The critics of such an action would say Congress is micro-managing a war (an argument Republicans made repeatedly debating the House resolution), but if those in charge of war management have led stupidly, irresponsibly, or in a manner contrary to the national interest, Congress surely has an obligation to do just that.

Examples? There are many:

  • In 1970, Congress passed the Supplemental Foreign Assistance Appropriations Act, prohibiting the use of funds to finance the introduction of American ground troops into Cambodia, or to provide advisors to Cambodian military forces in Cambodia.
  • In 1973, Congress passed a second such appropriations law cutting off funds for combat activities in Vietnam after Aug. 15, 1973.
  • In 1982, Congress cut off money for the Nicaraguan contras (whom the CIA had been secretly assisting) with the passage of the Boland Amendment.
  • In 1993, a Defense Department appropriations act prohibited funding for military operations in Somalia, except for a limited number of military personnel to protect American citizens and diplomats.
  • In 1998, Congress passed the Defense Authorization Bill, with a provision that forbade funding for Bosnia after June 30, 1998, unless the president made certain assurances.

With power comes responsibility. The Democrats might now be “in power,” but they’ve flubbed that responsibility and have let their constituents down almost completely. Many people, in and out of the peace movement, feel the American people did their job in November, but members of Congress have thus far failed to do theirs.

The truth is, many Democrats in Congress just aren’t sure what to do about Iraq (John Conyers of Michigan being a notable exception). That uncertainty, combined with phony Republican catch-phrases about “supporting the troops” – a red herring that totally ties the Democrats in knots – is causing them, writes Time Magazine, to embrace a new brand of “realism” and to “reach for the center.”

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