Remembrance of Powers Lost

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Remembrance of Powers Lost


THE SOURCE: "Congressional Abdication" by Jim Webb, in The National Interest, March/April 2013.

BEHOLD THE CONSTITUTIONAL POWERS OF the legislative branch in the realm of foreign affairs: to declare war, to raise an army and maintain a navy, to ratify treaties.

The Founding Fathers weren't as generous with the president: He is commander in chief, but in deciding matters of war and peace, lawmakers are to keep the chief executive on a short leash, lest he resemble a monarch.

Congress has shirked those weighty constitutional responsibilities, contends Jim Webb, a recently retired Democratic senator from Virginia. On an alarming number of occasions since 9/11, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have thumbed their noses at Capitol Hill. Cowed by political pressure or suffering from collective amnesia, Congress hardly whimpered.

In 2008, President Bush signed a wide-ranging Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. The Bush administration deftly avoided labeling the agreement a "treaty," so the document didn't require Senate ratification. "But neither was it a typical executive-branch negotiation designed to implement current policy and law," writes Webb, a Marine Corps veteran, novelist, and onetime Republican who served as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. After the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars and the loss of thousands of American lives, the "framework" determined the course of substantial U.S. assistance to the fledgling regime in Baghdad for years to come.

Webb, who served one term in the Senate (2007-13), says Bush should have consulted Congress about something so consequential. Instead, the administration kept the agreement under wraps until the eleventh hour. Just before it was signed, Webb requested access to the document. Other lawmakers weren't so diligent: "It appears that I was the only member of the Senate who at least at that point had actually read it." The Iraqi parliament, meanwhile, voted on the pact two times.

In May 2012, President Obama pulled a similar stunt. After more than a year of negotiations with Afghanistan, he skirted congressional oversight by signing "a legally binding executive agreement," as the White House termed it.

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