By Stopping Bush on Iraq, Dems Can Restore Congress's Power

This week, certain members of Congress found themselves in something of a pickle: What do you do when the public opposes a troop surge in Iraq, a blue-chip bipartisan study group recommends against a surge, top military generals advise against a surge -- and the President decides that what the nation really needs in Iraq is, well, a surge? On Jan. 7th, Sen. Joe Biden offered Tim Russert what is more or less the Democrats' consensus answer to that question: "....[T]here's not much I can do about it. Not much anybody can do about it. He's commander in chief. If he surges another 20, 30, or whatever number he's going to, into Baghdad, it'll be a tragic mistake, in my view, but, as a practical matter, there's no way to say, "'Mr. President, stop.'"

As a number of legal scholars have pointed out in recent days, that's not exactly true. Congress does have some constitutional tricks up its sleeve. So far, the media has mostly focused on Congress's power to cut funding for the war, and its ability to attach conditions to future appropriations, which Sen. Kennedy sought to do with his resolution last week, and which John Murtha is threatening to do using the defense appropriations committee, which he chairs.

These proposals, while constitutional, are probably the weakest of the possible options the Democrats have. Congress has already appropriated President Bush's defense budget for 2007, meaning that he doesn't need any new money for the surge; Democrats are also wary of doing anything that could be perceived as harmful for the troops.

But there are other ways. Congress could limit the number of troops; or it could set a deadline for withdrawal, as it did in 1973 for the war in Vietnam (and which Nixon ultimately met). It could also revisit its original authorization for war in October 2002. As leading constitutional scholars have pointed out, the rationale that now underpins the war in Iraq bears almost no resemblance to the one supported by Congress (you may remember that the original reasoning had something to do with weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's alleged links with Al Qaeda.) Congress could produce a reauthorization of military force that reflects this reality, a route Sen. Robert Byrd is supporting.

Of course, even if the House and Senate mustered the majorities required to override a presidential veto and pass such measures, it's highly likely that Bush would just ignore them. After all, since 9/11 he has repeatedly made the sweeping claim that he alone has the power to decide what "methods to use to best prevail against the enemy." That's precisely why Democrats should go ahead anyway.

Politically, if President Bush were to defy a law passed by a newly-and resoundingly elected-Democratic-controlled Congress, it would place responsibility for the war unavoidably with him. It would also draw public attention to the administration's previous abuses of the law.

There's a larger motive too. The authors of the Constitution split war powers between Congress (which gets to declare war and manage the armed forces) and the President, (who gets to direct the war) for a reason: It didn't want an English-style monarch with a monopoly on military matters. Under Republican control, a passive legislative branch has allowed the executive to claim unprecedented powers in this area, with disastrous results. Congress now has a responsibility to restore the balance.

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