Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Coming Constitutional Crisis (?)

The US Senate has voted to support a date for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. In a 50-48 vote, the Senate rejected a motion to remove the withdrawal language from the spending bill, meaning that the bill providing the money for the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq requires a gradual pullout of combat troops from Iraq to begin within 120 days and to be completed by March 31, 2008 (although the final date is non-binding). The spending bill will be voted on later this week but is almost certain to pass given this vote outcome. Then, the Senate will have to sit down with the House of Representatives to reconcile the two versions of the bill, as the House version contains a mandatory withdrawal deadline of September 2008. The president has threatened to veto the bill and will most likely do so immediately after final passage.

What's the likely outcome here? When President Bush vetoes this bill, Congress will have two options: Strip the language out in order to get the bill passed (of course, Congress could leave in non-binding language to make a point but not actually have any impact) or pass an identical bill to put the issue back in President Bush's court. Remember, this bill is the funding for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without it, military operations will have to be halted in a few months, at most. So if Congress continues to pass funding bills with binding withdrawal deadlines, at some point Bush will have to either allow the bill to become law, at which point he could either comply or refuse to comply (more on this later) or he could continue to veto the bill, let the funding run out on the troops in the field and blame Congress for abandoning the troops. For obvious political reasons, that last option is a disaster for Congress and the president alike, and both sides will want to avoid that outcome like the plague.

The most likely result of this is that once the president vetoes the spending bill, Congress will crow about the president obstructing the will of the people and then pass a bill without the withdrawal language. This enables Congress to do what it does best in foreign affairs: Express dissatisfaction with the current policies but avoid taking responsibility for it by refusing to force any changes.

If I had my druthers, however, I'd like to see Congress continue to pass bills that require a withdrawal that would force the president to sign the bill and then refuse to adhere to the deadline, claiming that the congressional action is an unconstitutional encroachment on the presidential war powers, specifically the commander-in-chief power. All too often, pending constitutional debates like these never get resolved because one side backs down for political reasons. But, as I read things, the spending bill as it is likely to be passed is, in fact, unconstitutional. Yes, Congress has the power of the purse over the US military. But the bill is not worded in the proper way to use that power. Simply placing withdrawal language in an appropriations bill is not the same as putting restrictions on the use of the appropriated funds. If Congress wants to stop the use of US military troops in Iraq, it needs to refuse to allow the president to use monies for that purpose. Congress is understood to not be allowed to "micro-manage" the military, and telling the president to withdraw troops is exactly what Congress cannot do. If the president signed the bill and refused to implement it, we would very likely get a Supreme Court decision on the war powers, which is all too rare and all too necessary.

The spending bill as it stands represents a congressional abdication of the role it is all too quick to loudly proclaim for itself. It is not a serious attempt to check the president, to bring the troops home, or to enforce the will of the American public. Rather it has the appearance of doing so without bringing the responsibility for such actions on Congress. The ultimate result of this will be nothing; until Congress grows a spine and refuses to appropriate funds for the war in Iraq, it will continue according to President Bush's plan.