Can Congress Block the Troop "Surge" in Iraq?

Can Congress block President Bush’s plan to “surge” U.S. combat troops in Iraq? The short answer: a veto-proof two-thirds majority in both houses will prevail. Even if the vote falls short, the impact could be the same.

One thing is sure: the Constitution gives the Congress not only the right but the duty to exert its influence on all policy decisions, even on a build-up of U.S. forces in Iraq. Although the president is commander-in-chief, he must share war powers with the Congress.

By using its power of the purse, Congress can control particular initiatives–”for example, terminate or moderate the “surge.” It can accomplish this by carefully drafting military authorizations and appropriations that impose precise restrictions on executive action. They can be drafted so they protect the well-being of U.S. forces stationed in Iraq. During my 22 years in Congress, several of my colleagues joined me in utilizing this restrictive device, although not on war measures.

Especially at this time of peril in Iraq, Congress should maintain a close rein on the character and extent of all military expenditures. It should start by rejecting the president’s request for a lump-sum $100 billion for 2007 war costs and substitute periodic appropriations of lesser amounts, say $20 billion each, to be considered in sequence while maintaining a close oversight on current spending.

Every administration is eager for exclusive control of war-making, but the Constitution clearly gives shared power to Congress. In one of several examples, it provides that only Congress can declare war. While a Member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln properly construed this provision to be the equivalent of making war, not just declaring it.

During the Vietnam conflict, Congress dithered over war policy. It never declared war. It never authorized extensive war measures. President Lyndon B. Johnson used the dubious 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution as his authority for expanding war-making. During the last stages of that war, when most U.S. forces had been withdrawn, Congress used the power of the purse to hasten total departure.

In the war’s wake and in clear recognition of congressional failure to meet its responsibility on war policy, Congress enacted over President Richard Nixon’s veto the War Powers Resolution, which provided the first statutory relationship between the executive and the legislative branches in the realm of war-making. In helping to fashion this resolution, I indulged in mea culpa. I regretted profoundly that I had not done more to bring U.S. involvement in Vietnam to an early end.

Over the years, Congress has rarely exercised its power to shape war policy. Perhaps today’s Congress will be more resolute than those of my generation in curbing presidential military misadventure.


Reprinted with permission from Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA)