How Congress Might Rein in US War Policy ; It Has Often Fallen Short of Its Aims When Taking on Presidents over Military Matters

Article excerpt

The confrontation between Congress and the White House over Iraq is developing into perhaps the most heated confrontation since Vietnam over one of the most basic aspects of the US Constitution - its allocation of the power to make war.

In history, Congress often has fallen short of its goals when it attempts to rein in or change the executive branch's conduct of war. Presidents have many ways of forging ahead despite political and legislative resistance.

But in some instances, lawmakers have played a pivotal role in ending US involvement. Their power to raise questions, via hearings and investigations, can be almost as important as their ability to cut off funds.

In part, that's what happened with Vietnam, though Congress today is not as roiled as it was in the late 1960s and early '70s. "We're not there yet," says Julian Zelizer, a Boston University historian and expert on Congress and Southeast Asia.

If nothing else, the words now being tossed back and forth over Iraq in Washington are becoming increasingly impassioned. On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lambasted members of Congress who back legislative attempts to place restrictions on what President Bush can do in Iraq.

"When members of Congress pursue an antiwar strategy that's been called 'slow-bleed,' they're not supporting the troops. They are undermining them," said Vice President Cheney.

In reply, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said in a statement that America is less safe today because of the war. Mr. Bush "must change course, and it's time for the Senate to demand that he do it," the senator said.

Yet on Tuesday congressional Democratic leaders removed from a military spending bill for the war in Iraq a provision requiring that Bush gain approval from Congress before making any move against Iran. Conservative Democrats, as well as some other lawmakers, had objected that this provision might lessen US negotiating leverage, as well as possibly embolden Iran to be more regionally aggressive.

The provision's removal shows how difficult it may be for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California and Senate majority leader Reid to keep Democrats together in the coming debates over further Iraq restrictions. It may also show how hard it is for Congress to strike a consensus over difficult questions of war and peace.

The bare outlines of the constitutional allocation of power in regard to war are well known to anyone who has passed a US civics course. Congress has the authority to declare war, and to raise and support military forces. The president is the commander in chief. …