Congressional Democrats are almost unanimously opposed to President Bush’s plan to increase the number of U.S. troops actively engaged in Iraq. They are less united when it comes to explaining what they would do instead, and even less so on what they will do — given that they now control both houses of Congress — to delay, control or prevent the troop buildup or to change course in Iraq.
To be sure, as commander in chief, the president has almost sole authority over the deployment of troops and other military resources during a time of war. But the framers of the Constitution also envisaged a substantial role for Congress. Congress has the power to declare war, to make rules about how war shall be conducted, to raise and finance armed forces.
One could argue, then, that, constitutionally speaking, this is not a legal war since Congress did not declare it. But we haven’t done things that way in this country for a long time, and Congress did vote to authorize the use of military force prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
What options are available to Congress now, and what, if any, are likely?
Theoretically, of course, Congress could end the war tomorrow (or at least start the winding-down process) by voting not to spend any more money on the war in Iraq. There’s a delayed-reaction situation, however. The executive branch would still have the money approved in previous appropriations, which is presumably enough to implement the troop surge and a great deal more. And ending future funding could put soldiers already in Iraq in danger by blocking the replenishment of ammunition and other equipment.
Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts has proposed a bill to require the president to get authorization from Congress for a troop increase. He argues that the authorization for force passed before the March 2003 invasion spoke of Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida, none of which are relevant to the current situation in Iraq; so, a new resolution is needed.
Congress could place conditions on future appropriations, using the budget process to inject their priorities into (or micromanage, if you will) the war. You can have the money, Mr. President, but you can’t use it for torture or more troops or to bomb Iran or whatever. It could also set a time limit for beginning the withdrawal or redeployment of U.S. troops.
So far Senate Democrats have voted to bring up a nonbinding resolution opposing the president’s plan, hoping to peel away some Republican votes and isolate the president politically. House Democrats have said they will try to derail funding for the troop build-up without harming the troops already in the field. But this would be a delicate legislative balancing act — and perhaps impossible, given money already in the pipeline and a determined president.
House and Senate committees and subcommittees, of course, have already begun hearings on various aspects of the war and no doubt will hold many more — some chaired by potential presidential candidates.
It will all no doubt get messy, but governance in a free society is always a bit messy. If the process leads to a larger discussion concerning the genuine core interests of the United States and policies likely to secure them in a world imperiled by jihadists and extremists — which is remotely possible though politicians usually shy away from first principles — it will be good for the country.