Thursday, January 18, 2007

Congressional war powers and the politics of opposing a war

Anti Vietnam War protest (Free You, Liberation News Service, date unknown)

Jack Murtha is now chairman of the Defense Subcommittee on the House Appropriations Committee. And, unlike Joe Biden, who seems to want to hem and haw his way to the Democratic Presidential nomination for 2008, Murtha is willing to see Congress exercise some of its Constitutional powers over Executive war-making.

Ari Berman reports on Murtha's Plan to Stop Bush The Nation blog 01/12/07

When he receives the Bush Administration's $100 billion supplemental spending request for Iraq on February 5, Murtha says "they'll have to justify every cent they want." He'll insist that no money be allocated for an escalation unless the military can meet normal readiness levels. "We should not spend money to send people overseas unless they replenish the strategic reserve," Murtha says. He expects to have one hundred and twenty days to act before the Administration deploys the second phase of additional troops to Iraq. "If he wants to veto the bill," Murtha says of Bush, "he won't have any money." Asked whether Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi supports his plans, Murtha responded: "Absolutely."
Given the plague of bad historical analogies that have accompanied the Iraq War all along, I'm hesitant to mention the Vietnam War. But Congressional battles over that war form a significant part of the historical precedents that are relevant to today's situation.

Gareth Porter makes good use of the Vietnam War period in describing Congressional options to restrain the warmaking of Dick Cheney and George Bush in How To De-Fund The Escalation 01/16/07.

And John Dean has been using his column to look at how the Democratic Congress can exercise effective oversight over the Cheney-Bush administration.

It includes a a series of articles: Are Congressional Wars Coming? Since Cheney Has Already Said He'll Ignore the Democratic Congress, It Seems Likely 12/01/06

Refocusing the Impeachment Movement on Administration Officials Below the President and Vice-President:
Why Not Have A Realistic Debate, with Charges that Could Actually Result in Convictions?
12/15/06 ("the impeachment movement": that has a nice sound, doesn't it?)

What Should Congressional Democrats Do, When the Bush Administration Stonewalls Their Efforts To Undertake Oversight? 12/29/06

The Arsenal of Tools Congressional Democrats Can Use To Force the Bush Administration To Cooperate with Their Efforts To Undertake Oversight 01/12/07.

One thing that Porter emphasizes is that there are significant differences in opposing Cheney and Bush on the McCain escalation that they have undertaken in Iraq and opposing Nixon on his Vietnam War policies:

By the time [the antiwar] McGovern-Hatfield [amendment] was brought to a vote in September 1970, Nixon had already convinced most Americans that he was getting out of Vietnam, even if it was only to replace U.S. troops with Vietnamese. The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam had already fallen from 550,000 when Nixon took office to 225,000, and the withdrawal would have been completed in two more years at the monthly rate then being implemented.
He also points out that with the military gains that the South Vietnamese government had made, there was a widespread (though false) impression that the RVN (South Vietnamese government) was winning while American troops were being withdrawn:

Bush, by way of contrast, has lost the ability to convince the American people that his strategy in Iraq is succeeding for more than a year. Today nearly 60 percent of the public believe the United States is losing in Iraq and that it cannot succeed.
Also, as he notes, the phased withdrawal on a set timetable that McGovern and Hatfield proposed did not have the clear support of a majority of the public, while today a substantial majority support withdrawal within, at most, a year and a half.

John Dean, in his 01/12/07 articlelinked above, gives several examples of how the Congressional subpoena is a potent one:

There is nothing subtle about the use of subpoenas, which can be used against Executive Branch officials or private individuals. If the witness claims the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent because of self-incrimination, the Congress can grant the witness either "use" immunity, precluding the use of the witness's testimony or its fruits in a criminal prosecution, or full immunity, which precludes criminal prosecution for stated charges on any evidence, no matter how it is discovered. ...

A witness's failure to honor a subpoena can result in a contempt citation by the Congress, and of course, contempt can bring jail time. The mere threat of contempt has been used, on countless occasions, to force a wide array of high-level Executive Branch officials to produce the requested information. No president has yet instructed an officer to defy Congress and go to jail. However, there have been a number of close calls.

Secretary of Commerce Rogers Morton turned over information regarding an Arab boycott of Israel in 1975, rather than be held in contempt. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger avoided contempt when President Ford had a member of his National Security Council provide information Congress wanted. Secretary of Interior James Watt, and Attorney General William Smith, yielded to Congress rather than face contempt. President Reagan's EPA head, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was dangerously close when the House voted, 259-to-105, to hold her in contempt, but Reagan yielded.

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh turned over documents in 1991, rather than risk contempt. White House associate counsel William Kennedy turned over notes regarding President Clinton and the Whitewater Development Corporation, rather than be held in contempt.
The Democrats in Congress have a lot of options at their disposal to restrain Cheney and Bush in their reckless policies. And also to use votes on war-related issues to put Cheney and the war supporters on the defensive. Let's hope they make very good use of their options.

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