Home The Washington Diplomat April 2007

U.S. Congress Challenges President's Authority on Iraq

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The U.S. Constitution has famously been called an “invitation to struggle” between the president and the Congress over control of U.S. foreign policy.

And there is little doubt that 2007 will be a year of intense struggle between the new Democratic majorities in Congress and President George W. Bush over the direction of U.S. policy in Iraq.

As the early months of the 110th Congress have shown, the Democratic leadership in Congress is fully prepared to spend this year challenging Bush at every turn regarding his Iraq policy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have repeatedly said that Bush’s plan for Iraq is deeply flawed, doomed to fail, and is not supported by the American people. They have vowed to use every instrument available to Congress to challenge Bush’s strategy and to try to change U.S. involvement in Iraq.

However, with narrow majorities in both the House and Senate and with Democrats divided over the specifics of an alternative Iraq strategy, Congress is unlikely to be able to force Bush to change his policy.

Experts agree there is no conceivable scenario in which Democrats will be able to cut off war funding this year. Fully aware of this constraint, Democrats have launched a bruising attack on the president’s Iraq strategy to show Democratic activists that they will put intense pressure on the president to reassess his policy. They have predicted that Bush will, at some point, be compelled to respond to the growing public call for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, succinctly summarized the Democratic strategy at a briefing in early March. “This is a campaign. We are going to keep at it, and we are going to continue this discussion for the good of the country. And we believe the more it is debated and discussed, the more the difference between the parties is apparent to the American people, the less flexibility the president will have in maintaining his course.”

Analysts have long noted that the U.S. Constitution does not create a clear and precise division of power for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy between Congress and the White House. It delegates more specific foreign policy powers to Congress than it does the president, even though the president is the principal foreign policy actor.

The president is the commander in chief and head of the executive branch. He negotiates treaties and nominates foreign policy officials such as ambassadors and top officials at the State Department. Congress has the power to declare war and fund the operations of the government. It also funds the military and regulates foreign commerce.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) called “Foreign Policy Roles of the President and Congress,” the Constitution divides foreign policy powers between the president and Congress in a complex and constantly evolving way.

It says the president and executive branch create foreign policy through responses to world events, proposals for legislation, negotiations for international agreements, policy statements, policy implementation and independent action.

Congress, in turn, can make foreign policy through resolutions and policy statements, legislative directives, legislative pressure, restrictions and funding denials, informal advice, and congressional oversight.

“Events have confirmed that together the President and Congress make foreign policy, but they have not resolved the question of which branch originates or finally determines policy,” the CRS report said.

“The roles and relative influence of the two branches in making foreign policy differ from time to time according to such factors as the personalities of the President and members of Congress and the degree of consensus on policy,” it added.

As this year’s debate on Iraq unfolds, a number of analysts and lawmakers have studied Congress’s action during the Vietnam War to better understand its powers during wartime.

In a recent essay in American Prospect magazine called “How Congress Got Us Out of Vietnam,” Julian Zelizer, a congressional expert at Boston University, argues that Congress has often played a significant, although underappreciated, role in wartime politics.

According to Zelizer, the Vietnam-era Congress had many failings, with lawmakers too often deferring to presidential decisions that they knew to be flawed. In addition, he said they often hesitated to challenge presidents directly, with Democrats and Republicans taking action after the fact and agreeing to watered-down compromises. And crucially, Congress never forced an immediate end to the war.

“But compared to Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Vietnam-era legislature compiled an impressive record in challenging flawed presidential decisions,” Zelizer wrote. “Between 1964 and 1975, many legislators forced discussion of difficult questions about the mission, publicly challenged the administration’s core arguments, and used budgetary mechanisms to create pressure on the Pentagon to bring the war to a halt.”

Zelizer noted that during President Richard Nixon’s first term beginning in 1969, there were 80 roll call votes on the Vietnam War in Congress. In contrast, there were only 14 congressional war votes between 1966 and 1968.

“In sum, Congress played a very important role in building opposition to an unpopular and failed Cold War intervention. Legislators emerged as major voices of skepticism, criticism and outright opposition to Vietnam. They checked the hawks in the administration who refused to believe the facts on the ground,” Zelizer wrote. “Congress was ultimately pivotal to placing pressure on the Nixon administration to end a conflict that cost approximately 58,000 American lives.”

Analysts have said that history shows many examples when Congress tried to enact limitations on a president’s war power, using funding limits, restrictions on the scope and duration of war authorizations, and annual appropriation and authorization laws to prescribe the circumstances in which U.S. personnel could engage in hostilities.

The recent examples of clashes between Congress and the White House on Kosovo and Somalia highlight situations in which the legislative branch used a host of tools to try to influence the president’s conduct in these conflicts.

Experts also agree that presidents have many ways of forging ahead despite political and legislative resistance from Congress. Most legal scholars agree that although Congress has the power to cut off funds, there are disputes about its power to manage specific aspects of a war.

“Decisions involving the conduct of war, including where to move troops, whether to reinforce troops, whether to move troops from one hill to another are vested exclusively in the president,” Robert Turner, a cofounder of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, told a Senate panel in January.

Congressional Democrats have publicly pondered a range of alternatives regarding Iraq. These include passing non-binding resolutions disapproving of the president’s so-called surge strategy; binding resolutions to limit troops to current levels; crafting a more limited war authorization; setting a troop withdrawal date; imposing conditions on continued funding; or cutting off funding.

In the House, Democratic leaders have drafted legislation to require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by Sept. 1, 2008, if not sooner. The Senate has drafted a proposal that doesn’t have a firm deadline, saying a withdrawal should begin within 120 days “with the goal of redeploying by March 31, 2008, all United States combat forces from Iraq except” for those needed for non-combat roles.

Few analysts expect these measures to pass Congress. Even if they do, Bush is certain to veto them. “The simple fact is that Congress can’t shut off a war. It never has and never will. But the Democrats in Congress can make the president’s life pretty darn miserable on Iraq,” said Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman who is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

“In the end, it’s almost certainly the case that it’s going to be events on the ground in Iraq that determines when the American troops leave,” he added. “But Congress can put a great deal of pressure on the president, and it seems like this Congress is looking for a lot of different ways to put pressure on the president.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999