Over the next week, Congress will vote on a non-binding resolution denouncing President Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq. Many people have already noted that with thousands of dead soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars lost, Congress might be able to manage more than a legislative “Dear John” letter. Yet, if you listen to the president and some Democratic leaders, Congress can do little to stop the hemorrhaging of lives and treasure.
The truth is that there is a lot that Congress could do. Among other things, it could stop the war. But neither the president nor many Democrats want to publicly entertain such a possibility. Indeed, the president has insisted, again, that he alone makes such decisions. When asked about what Congress can do if it opposes his build-up, Bush was dismissive and said, “Frankly, that’s not their responsibility.” Of course, the president acknowledged, “They could try to stop me from doing it … but I made my decision, and we’re going forward.”
Democratic leaders seem to be encouraging the same view of an unchecked executive. The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and other members suggested last week that it may be unconstitutional for Congress to cut funds for an escalation.
Power of the purse
All of this would have come as a great surprise to the framers. Far from being some type of constitutional eunuchs, legislators hold the very power that determines whether a war will continue, expand or end: the power of the purse. The framers specifically justified this congressional power as a check on the president’s ability to entangle the nation in disastrous foreign adventures.
Congress has historically used its power of the purse to deter, limit or end armed conflicts. During the Mexican and Civil wars, Congress used its appropriations to influence or restrict the conduct of the wars. During the Vietnam War, Congress not only repealed its authorization for the war, but it set a date to cut off funds for combat operations — forcing the war to an end.
Congress has also acted to restrict past presidents in other ways. Congress barred the use of funds by President Ford for any intervention in Angola and barred such funds by President Reagan to support the contras in Nicaragua. President Clinton was limited in his use of troops in Somalia and Bosnia.
After campaigning on the war, Democrats are struggling to lower the expectations that they created. Yet, two out of three Americans oppose the president’s plan for escalation. More than 60% believe the president was wrong to invade Iraq in the first place. Worse still, recent polls in Iraq show that not only do 70% of Iraqis want us out within a matter of months, but more than 60% actually support the killing of our troops.
With all of its power, Congress’ use of a non-binding resolution is akin to a surgeon trying to shout out a malignant tumor. Congress has the means; it is only a question of its will.
For his part, Bush is playing a dangerous game of chicken by moving to send troops to Iraq before any authorization of funds is made. Bush knows that Congress is unlikely to have the courage to pull funds once troops are in place.
The use of military personnel as hostages in a fight with Congress is not new. Teddy Roosevelt had many fights with Congress over the composition and use of the military. One such dispute occurred over Roosevelt’s desire to send his “Great White Fleet” around the world to show the American flag — an enterprise viewed by many as an expensive vanity. When Congress balked in appropriating funds for fuel and support, Roosevelt used what fuel he had to send the fleet halfway around the world. He then informed Congress that if it wanted its new fleet back, it would be wise to send the fuel.
It is not clear how long Congress will wait before using its authority. As Democrats look for a personally convenient moment to act and the president tries to spend himself to victory, the country continues to pay a dear price. If it takes a projected $500 billion and nearly 26,000 dead or wounded soldiers to get Congress to the point of a non-binding resolution, one can only imagine what it would take to cut off funds. Yet, rest assured: When members finally feel comfortable with acting to end this war, they will find all the authority they need in the Constitution and all the reasons they need in Iraq.