Congress is helpless only out of choice

By Jacob Weisberg

Financial Times

January 11 2007

Several decades back, the psychologist Martin Seligman developed his theory of “learned helplessness”. Subjected to repeated punishment, animals and humans come to believe they have no control over what happens to them, whether they actually do or not. In Seligman’s original experiment, dogs given repeated electrical shocks would prostrate themselves and whine, even when escaping the abuse lay within their power.

As with canines, so with congressional Democrats. In theory, they now control a co-equal branch of government. In practice, they are so traumatised by years of mistreatment at the hands of a contemptuous executive that they continue to cower and simper whenever master waves a stick in their direction.

This phenomenon is at its most pitiable when it comes to Congress’s powers over national security, terrorism and the war in Iraq. Last Sunday, Senator Joseph Biden, the Democrats’ dean of foreign policy, was asked on Meet the Press what he intended to do when President George W. Bush announced his plan to send additional American troops to Iraq. “There’s not much I can do about it,” Mr Biden shot back. “Not much anybody can do about it. He’s commander-in-chief.”

This has been the attitude of most of Mr Biden’s colleagues. Nearly all of them think that the war in Iraq is a losing proposition, which Mr Bush’s pending escalation will make worse. Most favour gradually reducing the number of Americans deployed in Iraq. Yet they are behaving for the most like dazed onlookers at the scene of a disaster. At best, they are willing to consider expressing their disapproval of Mr Bush through a non-binding resolution, also known as “talking to the hand”.

In fact, congressional Democrats have the power to stop the war any day they want. Rejecting additional funding, which 12 senators voted to do in 2003, is merely the most dramatic and least politically attractive of their options. Congress can pass a law that says the president cannot send more troops. It can limit the length of military tours of duty. It can legislate a deadline for withdrawal. A few anti-war types are, in fact, proposing such drastic measures. But such voices remain a small, if vocal, minority.

Congress learnt to be helpless by standing aside as successive presidents asserted that the war power belongs to them alone. That is not what the constitution says. Article one, which gives the legislative branch the sole power to declare war, also puts it in charge of creating, funding and regulating the armed forces. But every president since Harry Truman has taken the position that it is unreasonable for permission to be required from Congress in advance of military action.

Congress’s frustration with being brushed aside boiled over during Vietnam, resulting in the passage of the 1973 war powers resolution. All presidents since Richard Nixon have maintained that this law – which creates a 60-day period after the onset of hostilities for presidents either to get congressional approval or withdraw troops – is an unconstitutional infringement of their article two power as commander-in-chief. Both Presidents Bush asserted that they needed no congressional authorisation for their Gulf wars – and Congress, in both cases, chose to avoid a showdown by handing them authorisation anyhow. This has left unsettled the question of whether a president can in fact go to war over Congress’s objection.

But Congress’s power to terminate a war is even clearer than its power to forbid one in the first place. A provision of the war powers resolution states specifically that the president must remove forces when Congress so orders. Faced with military deployments they disliked in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, Republican lawmakers did not hesitate to invoke this authority during the Clinton years.

Perhaps the most striking example was the military intervention in Somalia. In 1993, the House of Representatives passed an amendment saying US forces could remain there only one more year. Two subsequent defence appropriations bills cut off funding for the deployment. Congress also drew limits around how US personnel and bases could be used.

When they say they are incapable of stopping Mr Bush’s plan, what congressional Democrats really mean is that they are afraid to oppose it. With only 17 per cent of respondents supporting the “surge”, according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll, it is hard to see how voting against more troops would be an act of political suicide. But after years of being called weak, unsupportive of the troops and unpatriotic, flinching at conservative threats has become a Pavlovian Democratic response. Earlier this week, Tony Snow, White House spokesman, said the war in Iraq remained necessary because Americans “don’t want another September 11”. It is hard to imagine anyone being taken in by this non-sequitur, yet many still are. By feigning helplessness, Democrats also leave the onus for whatever happens next in Iraq on Mr Bush.

There are plausible arguments for supporting a surge and some good ones for rejecting a precipitous pullout. But Democrats who argue for withdrawal and fail to act on their convictions have no leg to stand on. By abdicating their constitutional role, they feed the executive monster Mr Bush has created. If they are serious about ending the war, Democrats must quit yelping and bite back.