AWOL From the Debate: Where Is Congress as We Contemplate War with Iraq?

By Steven Luxenberg

Whatever became of congressional debate?

Ever since military action against Iraq became likely, Congress has been missing in action. The discussion was more spirited on “Fox News Sunday” and “Face the Nation” than the few exchanges on the floor of the House or Senate. There was more soaring oratory in the House of Commons last week—and the British are merely fly-alongs on this mission to Baghdad—than has been heard in the chambers of Congress. The Clinton administration’s top three defense and foreign policy advisers faced more pointed questions at the Ohio State University “town hall” meeting on Wednesday than they have in the committee rooms on Capitol Hill.

As President Clinton prepared the country last week for the closest thing to war since the last battle with Saddam Hussein in 1991, where were the 535 men and women who serve as the people’s elected representatives? On recess.

Some went on fact-finding missions to places like Bosnia. Most went home to reconnect with constituents or do the usual fund-raising. Now they’re coming back to Washington, presumably refreshed and refocused. Let’s also hope they rediscovered the meaning of urgency. If they wait much longer to debate the pending resolution supporting the use of military force, the bombers may already be winging their way over Iraqi skies.

Congress seems to have forgotten its place in this system of government we call a representative democracy. Or perhaps it is ducking the debate, which is worse. Congress is supposed to act in our stead—to get the briefings we can’t get, to ask the questions we can’t ask, to make the hard decisions so that 260 million Americans don’t all have to become experts on Social Security or agricultural subsidies or diplomacy. In return, it is our responsibility to register our approval or displeasure—immediately or at the voting booths later on.

In this case, the representatives have so far failed to stick to their part of the bargain. That’s why the town meeting last week was such a significant moment.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Because of the vacuum of leadership in Congress on what to do about Iraq, a town hall meeting became a stand-in for the debates that Congress should have been having. If the members of the four House and Senate committees that are primarily responsible for defense and national security had thoroughly cross-examined Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and national security adviser Samuel R. Berger about the administration’s objectives, they might have been better prepared for the discord they heard.

Of course, the finger pointing began as soon as the session ended. Commentators had a field day, chiding the administration for misplaying its hand, for sending such dignified officials into such an undignified setting, for failing to control the crowd. The adjectives were telling: The meeting was “unruly,” “raucous,” a “free-for-all.” In the ritual dance that so often characterizes the relationship between the news media and the news makers, administration officials hedged their bets. They said it wasn’t a mistake to expose the panel to public criticism (it showed the “vibrancy of democracy,” said one aide) and that it would never happen again.

There were no losers in Columbus. The dissenters spoke, the officials listened. Albright, Cohen and Berger may have come away with their nerves a bit frayed, but their dignity was intact. The ones who should be embarrassed are the members of Congress. The town hall questioners were doing their job—and some were doing it quite well. During the Vietnam War, Sen. William J. Fulbright (D-Ark.) regularly called administration officials before his Senate Foreign Relations committee to question them about the progress of the war. At the moment, his spirit is more alive in Columbus, Ohio, than in Washington, D.C.

Still, holding town meetings is no substitute for congressional debate. It’s easy to say that the crowd in Columbus was out of sync with the majority of Americans—who, polls show, support military action. But debate is about more than building support. It helps prepare the public for what could go wrong. And in military affairs, the unexpected is to be expected.

In matters of war, the writers of the Constitution carved out a special status for Congress. They said that it is Congress’s prerogative to “declare war.” In this simple phrase, Congress was given a responsibility reserved for no other body or branch of government. Not even the president has the constitutional right to declare war. This was no oversight; the framers of the Constitution felt that such a momentous decision should not be left to the president alone.

In modern times, presidents have invoked their authority as commander-in-chief to send U.S. troops into combat, avoiding the use of the term “war.” Since the founding of the republic, presidents have undertaken more than 150 military actions of varying degrees without prior legislative approval. In contrast, Congress has declared war only five times since 1789; the last time was World War II. Meanwhile, presidents have continued to expand their powers, often at Congress’s expense. Congress never declared war on Korea or Vietnam. Nor did it authorize the sending of troops to Grenada in 1983 or to Panama in 1989.

Congress has a long history of chafing at this incursion into its turf—and of doing nothing about it. Now it appears to be acquiescing once again. Where are the intellectual heirs to those legislators who pushed Congress to adopt the 1973 War Powers Resolution? This measure was one of several that a fed-up Congress passed during the Vietnam War in an attempt to stop President Nixon’s unilateral expansion of the war in Southeast Asia. The joint resolution, which sets up a series of steps that the president must follow if he commits troops to combat, is still in force. While it was more an expression of frustration than strength (there are scholars who question its legality and its wisdom) it nonetheless reflected a passion to participate that is absent on Capitol Hill today.

There was a time, not so long ago, when some members of Congress took war seriously. In 1990, after George Bush had drawn his line in the sand and declared that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait would not stand, 53 members of the House and one senator filed a lawsuit to stop any military action against Iraq without prior congressional approval. The legislators wanted U.S. District Judge Harold Greene to issue a preliminary injunction, but Greene said judicial intervention was premature because the Bush administration was still formulating its plans. The issue became moot when the administration asked for and received congressional approval to use “all necessary means” to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

The three-day debate over Operation Desert Storm was one of the most memorable and important in recent congressional history. It included the kind of substantive argument that must be held before the nation launches an offensive attack against another country. Many of those who spoke most eloquently are still serving in Congress or in the administration. One was Secretary Cohen, then a Republican senator from Maine. As he cast his vote in favor of military action, Cohen said it was “an hour of doubt and an hour of destiny.”

It is no less an hour now. There will be those who will argue that a carefully planned air strike on a limited number of targets cannot be compared to a full-scale ground war. And they are right, of course. But that has little to do with the purpose of a full-scale debate.

There are still a few legislators who recognize that war is part of Congress’s province. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) took to the floor just before the recess to urge more debate about the ramifications of President Clinton’s policy toward Iraq. He made clear his frustration with Saddam Hussein, but he tried to look ahead at what happens after a bombing campaign. Among his questions: “Can we, with any degree of certainty, effectively target and destroy {Saddam’s} most deadly weapons? Will the strike prevent Saddam from counter-attacking and using weapons of mass destruction? Will this action end all chances of further inspections? If this is true, what will happen when his capability is restored? How will the attack change Saddam’s conduct? Have we considered the possibility of terrorist activities in both the Mideast and in the United States?”

Roberts ended by expressing confidence that administration officials had studied these issues. But, he said, many people with expertise in military tactics and national security believe that the proposed air strike “will be flawed and counterproductive.” He urged his fellow senators not to approve any resolution of support until these questions could be answered.

In one sense, he got his wish. The Senate adjourned without acting on the resolution. But Roberts’s questions hung in the air. Later that week, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle appeared jointly on the floor to explain their decision to postpone a vote. “We have decided,” Lott said, “that the most important thing is not to move so quickly but to make sure that we have had all the questions asked and answered.”

But that’s just the point: This crisis has been mounting for weeks. When does Congress plan to find out what it needs to know? Let’s speculate for a moment about where things go from here. Assume that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s diplomatic mission to Baghdad fails to bring back a meaningful compromise. Assume that the United States unleashes its bombs, and a desperate Saddam Hussein decides to retaliate by sending Scud missiles into Israel. Now there is pressure on Israel to strike back. Other Arab nations make threatening noises about what their response will be. How will Congress explain its inattention then?

A full-fledged debate isn’t an obstacle to action. Neither is asking hard questions of administration officials at committee hearings. Both are important steps that inform and protect the administration and the Congress as they embark on a course of action that is certain to lead to unanticipated places. There is still time for our elected officials on Capitol Hill to embrace the task they were elected to do.

© The Washington Post; printed here by permission

The Washington Post
Sunday Outlook
February 22, 1998