THE debate that Congress needs to have about the Iraq war is being hijacked by sound-bite arguments. Defenders of President Bush concede that Congress has “the power of the purse” and insist it could use it to completely “cut off the funds to the troops.” But that, most of them say, is the only power Congress has to change the course of the war. They then insinuate that exercising this power would be an unspeakable act of disloyalty to our soldiers, leaving them without supplies, ammunition or pay. Congress is thus placed in a box: it has a single awesome power that it would never employ.The media is happily playing along with this "Democrats are helpless" meme. This is from Reuters:
There are at least three errors in this line of argument. First, Congress is hardly limited to this seemingly magical power of the purse. It has several sources of constitutional authority over the use of military force, including the express right “to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”
When Congress decides, for example, to limit warrantless surveillance of telecommunications, it does not need to say: “No funds appropriated under this act may be used for a search unless a warrant has been obtained.” It may instead simply require the executive branch to obtain a warrant.
True, restrictions on spending are often attractive to Congress, because they can be attached to essential spending bills that a president may not be willing to veto. But when the debate gets turned to the spending power, it has been soured by the second false claim: that using the power of the purse would somehow leave the troops high and dry in Iraq.
Suppose that Congress did decide that military forces financed by future defense appropriations acts would, after a certain date, have to be deployed elsewhere than Iraq. Such a requirement would not cut a single penny of support for the troops in Iraq before the redeployment date, or for those same troops redeployed outside Iraq after that date.
How could that possibly be seen as “cutting off” support for our fighting men and women? Only if a president chose to violate both the Congressional provision that the troops were to be redeployed and the laws providing for the pay, benefits and support of those in the military. Why would a president do something so perverse? Mr. Bush wouldn’t. Thus this claim — that he would be forced to defy the law by sending “unfunded” troops into combat — is simply a false threat intended to curtail meaningful debate.
The third incorrect precept in the Iraq debate is the notion that while Congress could bring our troops home via its spending power, it lacks the ability to limit the size of the deployment: it is all or nothing.
Proponents of this argument ignore longstanding executive branch legal opinions as well as Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court has long recognized Congress’s authority to set limits on the president’s military power, as in 1799 when it accepted Congress’s power to authorize the seizure of ships going to, but not coming from, French ports.
More important, the legal advisers of presidents have themselves repeatedly recognized this Congressional power...
It was unclear how long the debate would last. There seemed to be little expectation that the measure could pass given the procedural rules of the Senate, which give the minority considerable power to block debates or votes.And yet for the past few years, when the GOP held the Senate and Congress and Dems were in the minority, the Dems repeatedly complained that they couldn't do anything. So suddenly the minority is all-powerful? Go figure!
Republicans could still try to bar a vote on the measure, and Democrats, with a 51-49 majority, have said they cannot be sure of the plan's passage if it does come to a vote.
And another thing. If you are so sure the GOP is going to knock back your proposals, why not at least ensure that they have teeth?