Tuesday�s highly anticipated congressional testimony by
General David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker,
the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, appeared to be an exercise in futility.
Despite tough questions and somewhat heated exchanges
between Democratic lawmakers and Petraeus and Crocker, the Democratic
leadership has signaled it has no immediate plans to flex their legislative
muscle to change the direction of the conflict while President Bush is still in
the White House.
In fact, Democrats will soon convene Senate hearings to
debate a supplemental spending bill that calls for pouring another $100 billion
into Iraq until late September. More than $500 billion has been spent to fund
military operations in Iraq, much of it through emergency legislation passed by
Congress since 2003. Democratic lawmakers have said the legislation is certain
to pass and is unlikely to include any benchmarks, specifically, those that
sets a specific date for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Realizing they are unlikely to fulfill their 2006 midterm
election promise to voters that they will swiftly change the course of the war,
the Democratic leadership in both houses, in a last ditch effort to change the
direction of the occupation, sent a letter to President Bush last Friday asking
that he reconsider his military approach.
�The current Iraq strategy has no discernible end in sight
and requires the United States to spend additional hundreds of billions of
dollars despite urgent national needs in education, health care, and
infrastructure improvement, and when high oil prices have provided the Iraqi
government with billions in additional revenue that could pay for their own
redevelopment and security," says the letter, signed by Speaker of the
House Nancy Pelosi of California, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of
Maryland, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Senate Democratic
Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. �This strategy is neither sustainable nor in our
broader national security or economic interest . . . We are deeply concerned
that you and the congressional Republican leadership are intent on staying the
current course throughout your administration and then handing the Iraq war off
to future presidents.�
Not surprisingly, Bush did not issue a response.
Still, if lawmakers were serious about radically changing
the direction of military operations in Iraq they have several legislative
options at their disposal, according to a recent report issued by the
Congressional Research Service (CRS), the investigative arm of Congress.
The 52-page report, �Congressional Authority to Limit U.S.
Military Operations in Iraq,� says Congress can �enact legislation that
restricts the scope of military operations through appropriations.�
�Congress�s ability to deny funds for the continuation of
military hostilities is not contingent upon the enactment of a positive law,
though such a denial may take the form of a positive enactment,� the report
says. �Although the President has the power to veto legislative proposals, he
cannot compel Congress to pass legislation, including bills to appropriate
funds necessary for the continuation of a military conflict.�
The report says that �a simple majority of a single House
could prevent the appropriation of funds necessary for the continuation of a
military conflict,� but suggests that legislation probably would be required to
prevent the president from exercising statutory authority to transfer certain
funds appropriated to other operations for use in support of the military
conflict that Congress was attempting to limit.
With the presidential race in full swing and a fear that
they will continue to be characterized as weak on national security, the
likelihood that Democrats would even consider following through on any of the
report's suggestions seems far-fetched at best. Still, the report is a sobering
reminder that Congress could succeed in challenging Bush�s assertions that, as
commander-in-chief, he can act unilaterally and that any attempt by lawmakers
to interfere with that dual role would represent an unconstitutional violation
of the separation of powers principles.
�There has been some suggestion in the past that the
President�s responsibility to provide for troops in the field justifies further
deployments without prior authorization from Congress, with some arguing that
the President has an independent implied spending power to carry out these
responsibilities,� says the February 28 report. �These arguments do not easily
square with Congress�s established prerogative to limit the scope of wars
through its war powers, and do not conform with Congress�s absolute authority
to appropriate funds.�
�At least two arguments support the constitutionality of
Congress�s authority to limit the President�s ability to increase or maintain
troop levels in Iraq,� the report added. �First, Congress�s constitutional
power over the nation�s armed forces provides ample authority to legislate with
respect to how they may be employed. Secondly, Congress has virtually plenary
constitutional power over appropriations. Article I provides that �No Money
shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by
Law.� It is well established, as a consequence of these provisions, that �no
money can be paid out of the Treasury unless it has been appropriated by an act
of Congress� and that Congress can specify the terms and conditions under which
an appropriation may be used.�
CRS says in past wars Congress has historically succeeded in
forcing an administration to change its military strategy by using the �power
of the purse.�
�In cases of significant differences with the President over
foreign policy, especially deployments of U.S. military forces abroad, Congress
has generally found that use of its constitutionally-based 'power of the purse'
to be the most effective way to compel a President to take actions regarding
use of U.S. military force overseas that he otherwise might not agree to,"
the report said. CRS issued several reports last year stating that to change
the dialogue about Iraq, Congress may be forced to pursue the politically
unpopular route of reducing or significantly limiting war funds.
"Two well-known proposals -- the McGovern-Hatfield
amendment and the Cooper-Church amendments -- were also part of this jockeying
between the administration and Congress. The first prohibited expenditure of
previously appropriated funds after a specified date 'in or over Indochina,'
except for the purpose of withdrawing troops or for protection of US troops
during the withdrawal, while the second prohibited the expenditure of any funds
after July 1, 1970, to retain troops in Cambodia unless specifically authorized
by law hereafter. Overall, funding restrictions have generally proven more
effective than the War Powers Act, which has been challenged by the executive
branch on constitutional grounds," the report says.
But Democrats are unwilling to pursue that course of action
-- not while President Bush is occupying the White House.
"I expect most of our troops to still be there"
until at least the end of the year, said Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic
chairman of the Armed Services Committee, during a conference call with
reporters last Friday. "Until there's either a big enough majority in the
Senate or a change in the president's [strategy], I don't see a significant
improvement in Iraq."
Leopold is the author of "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit
www.newsjunkiebook.com for a