Why Even a Democratic Congress Can't Stop President Bush on Iraq

Despite the failure of a non-binding Congressional resolution that opposes President's Bush's plan to send over 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, Democrats say they will find new ways to challenge the troop increase. The House of Representatives passed the measure, but Senate Republicans succeeded in blocking the resolution using procedural rules. Now Democrats are considering other Congressional measures, including modifying the original war authorization Congress (overwhelmingly) passed in 2002. Specifically, Democrats want American troops to be limited to support missions, taking them out of active combat roles; they claim that the U.S. military was never intended to intercede in a civil war. Other proposals include cutting funding for the Iraq war - effectively preventing President Bush from sending more troops or prolonging operations in Iraq, attaching conditions to future military operations (as Congress did for the first Persian Gulf War, for Clinton's deployment of Marines to Haiti in 1994, and for the U.S. bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999), or, ironically, capping troop levels.

Historically however, Congress has never been able to effectively halt a war, especially one which it has previously sanctioned (such as Vietnam and Iraq). For every measure Congress has tried to adopt to limit U.S. involvement, loopholes have been found and exploited. In 1970 the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, originally passed in 1964 authorizing Kennedy to escalate the war in Vietnam, was repealed; that move obviously did not end the war. In another example of the executive branch dodging the legislative, the Reagan administration used profits from arms sales to Iran to illegally fund Nicaraguan Contras, circumventing a Congressional ban on official U.S. funding in 1984. When Marines were sent to Haiti in 1994, Congress passed a non-binding resolution (hey, sound familiar?) that called for their return "as soon as possible"; Clinton shrugged this off, and U.S. troops stayed for another five years under U.N. provisions.

So, has the founding principle of checks and balances in the American political system just gone out the window? Well, Congress learned its lesson from Vietnam and in 1973 passed the War Powers Resolution, which "requires the President to report to Congress whenever he introduces U.S. armed forces abroad [for combat operations]."

[S]ection 5(b) requires the President to terminate the use of U.S. Armed Forces after [60-90] days unless Congress (1) has declared war or authorized the action; (2) has extended the period by law; or (3) is physically unable to meet as a result of an armed attack on the United States.

Section 5(c) also requires the President to remove the forces at any time if Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.

While the original authorization for the Iraq war remains in effect, the War Powers Resolution is not applicable. Thus, Democrats are trying to modify that resolution, and possibly force a withdrawal. However, such a tactic is unlikely to succeed even if attempted, as the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution has always been questioned. A 1983 Supreme Court ruling also cast doubt on the Congressional power to demand a troop withdrawal pursuant to section 5(c) (see the "Legislative Veto" section of the linked article for more information).

As for other options, cutting funding is unattractive among politicians because such a vote could be construed as trying to undercut the troops and put them in additional harm (though even the Republican Congress back in 2002-2003 could not provide adequate body armor for the troops). Proposing a cap on troop levels would be more of a symbolic gesture than anything substantive (like a sham Republican counterproposal in 2005 that literally called for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, after Democrats first proposed setting a six-month timetable). And given President Bush's single-minded determination up to this point, it's unreasonable to expect that any Congressional conditions on future military operations would have much effect.

Simply put, President Bush is effectively on a one-man crusade in Iraq as his administration faces record-low approval ratings, and a Democratic Congress arrayed against him. But the scariest thing is, even at this point it doesn't seem that anyone or anything is going to stop him.

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