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No Checks, No Balances: House Refuses to Authorize Obama's Libya War, but Funds It | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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No Checks, No Balances: House Refuses to Authorize Obama's Libya War, but Funds It

House Speaker John Boehner, whose incoherent approach to the constitutional mandate that Congress check and balance presidential war-making has so served the interests of the Obama administration’s Libya project, steered the House into conflict with itself Friday.

Boehner advanced two proposals (under the sponsorship of the speaker’s close allies) relating to the president’s decision to involve US forces in an ongoing—if largely dysfunctional—NATO-led assault on Libya.

One proposal would have authorized the president’s war of whim.

The other would have cut funding for Obama’s latest war, thus bringing the initiative to a swift conclusion.

On the first measure, the House voted 295-123 against authorizing even the limited use of US forces.

On the second measure, the House rejected the funding cut by a 238-180 vote.

So the House has refused to authorize the president’s war with Libya.

At the same time, however, the House has agreed to continue funding it.

If the pairing of policies makes no apparent sense, well, welcome to John Boehner’s Congress.

The speaker, who has repeatedly steered the House away from moves that would actually hold the president to account, has again shredded the Constitution in order to help the Obama White House maintain an undeclared, unnecessary and unwise war.

Let’s be clear about what the different players in this charade wanted with regard to these House votes.

The Obama administration would have preferred House votes to authorize the mission and to maintain the funding. They lost on the authorization, which is embarrassing, but kept the money for the project, which is definitive. So, while the president did not get exactly what he wanted, he survived an accountability moment without really being held to account.

Antiwar forces on Capitol Hill, led by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, and the rapidly growing bipartisan coalition of congressional supporters of the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, wanted the House to refuse to authorize the Libyan mission and to refuse to fund it. They easily won the lesser goal, in that the authorization resolution was defeated. But things got far more complex when it came to the funding resolution.

Some antiwar members, such as Kucinich, voted for the resolution because the wording seemed to limit funding for the mission. Others, such as Paul, voted against it because they feared the resolution could be read as authorizing some aspects of the current mission.

Only Boehner and the most politically self-serving of his allies favored both the refusal to authorize the war and the continued funding of it. Why? Because the refusal of authorization took a poke at the president, while the maintenance of funding served the agenda of the generous campaign donors associated with the nation’s largest military contractors, a crowd that remains enthusiastic about maintaining even the most foolish of fool’s missions abroad.  

Friday’s voting was a cynical exercise organized by Boehner and approved, grudgingly, by the White House. But there was plenty of cynicism to go around. Many Democrats who voted against authorizing the president’s war then voted in favor of funding it—a have-it-both-ways combination. And more than a few Republicans with steady records of supporting military misadventures abroad took the anti-war position Friday in hopes of undermining Obama.

That does not mean, however, that everyone involved was a cynic.

A number of members did their best to cast consistent votes against authorizing the president’s Libya project and against continuing to fund it. And they backed those votes up with strong statements about the need to end wars of whim and presidential prerogative.

Most of the appropriate antiwar votes came from the core group of members that has stood with Kucinich as he has battled to end this undeclared war of Barack Obama—just as he battled to end the undeclared wars of George Bush.

On the question of whether to authorize the Libyan mission, Kucinich and sixty-nine other Democrats voted “no.” They were joined by 225 Republicans.

On the question of limiting the use of US funds to maintain the Libya mission, thirty-six Democrats (including Kucinich and prominent progressives such as Michigan’s John Conyers and Massachusetts’ Barney Frank) voted “yes,” as did 144 Republicans. But it is important to note that a number of antiwar members, including Paul and California Democrat Mike Honda, voted “no” because of their fears that the resolution’s language about limiting (rather than eliminating) funding for the Libya mission could be read as a backdoor authorization of the mission.

Paul was particularly blunt in urging his colleagues—especially the Republicans—to oppose any authorization (be it formal or through language allowing some funding) of a continued mission in Libya.

New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee warned: “We have been sliding for seventy years to a situation where Congress has nothing to do with the decision about whether to go to war or not, and the president is becoming an absolute monarch. And we must put a stop to that right now, if we don’t want to become an empire instead of a republic.”

Nadler was right, as he so frequently is on issues of presidential powers.

Unfortunately, the debate that might have been on this most central of constitutional questions was thwarted by Boehner, who rushed the proposals to votes on a Friday afternoon when Congress is preoccupied with a trumped-up debt-ceiling debate and the mad rush to finish business before the traditional Judy 4 break.

New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, the ranking Democrat on House Rules Committee, decried the “shameful” way in which Boehner and House Republicans forced quick votes with limited debate on the two Libya measures rushed through both bills. “[The] way in which today’s measures are being debated shames the dignity, history and tradition of this body,” said Slaughter. “I really regret the shameful way this important debate has been rushed through Congress and I apologize to future generations who will look back on the work that we are doing today to try to understand the time.”

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