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Congress Fails to Function | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Congress Fails to Function

The speed with which the Congress leapt to intervene in the Florida right-to-die case of Terry Schiavo might create the impression that the US House of Representatives is a functioning legislative chamber. But nothing could be further from the truth. While House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, can get the wheels spinning to satisfy the demands of the social conservative voting blocs on which his party relies for support, this Congress has ceased to function as a serious legislative body.

This is not a complaint merely about Republicans in the House and Senate -- whose unwavering allegiance to even their president's maddest schemes mirrors that of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote. The Democrats are just about as bad, as was illustrated by their vote last week on the administration's demand for another $81.4 billion to maintain the US occupation of Iraq. The emergency appropriation vote provided a rare opportunity for the House to debate the wisdom of the war, the occupation and the president's approach to foreign affairs. But few members chose to seize that opportunity.

Rather, they voted by a lopsided 388-43 margin in favor of giving the administration another blank check. Predictably, the Republicans split 226-3 in favor of the proposal. The short list of GOP dissenters included two longtime critics of the war, Texan Ron Paul and Tennesseean John Duncan, as well as North Carolinian Howard Coble, a close ally of the White House, who surprised more than a few of his colleagues by announcing that he is "fed up with picking up the newspaper and reading that we've lost another five or 10 of our young men and women in Iraq."

There were a few more Democratic dissenters, but not many. Some 162 members of what is supposed to be the opposition party backed the president's request, while only 39 opposed it. (The Democratic dissents came from Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, William Clay of Missouri, Danny Davis of Illinois, Sam Farr of California, Bob Filner of California, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Maurice Hinchey of New York, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Barbara Lee of California, John Lewis of Georgia, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Betty McCollum of Minnesota, Jim McDermott of Washington, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, George Miller of California, Major Owens of New York, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Donald Payne of New Jersey, Charles Rangel of New York, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Jose Serrano of New York, Pete Stark of California, Mike Thompson of California, John Tierney of Massachusetts, Edolphus Towns of New York, Nydia Velázquez of New York, Maxine Waters of California, Anthony Weiner of New York and Lynn Woolsey of California.)

The lone independent in the House, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, was the 43rd dissenter.

Unfortunately, the Democratic foes of the appropriation were far outnumbered by Democratic backers of the White House demand. The Bush backers included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, and most other key players in the party's leadership.

Most of the Democrats who dissented were members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, along with white members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. By and large, they are veteran critics of the Bush administration's foreign policies. And many of them are bold in their assertion that Congress should be appropriating money to pay for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq -- not the continued occupation of that country. "By the middle of this year, I think we could begin a rapid withdrawal (and be out) by the end of this year," Representative Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, told a local reporter after casting her vote against funding the administration's request. "Do I think it's likely? I don't. But I think it's important to keep pressing for it."

While the "no" voters were expressing their opposition to the war, they were also expressing their understanding of the Constitution's requirement that Congress serve as a check and balance on the executive branch of the federal government.

"Time and again the President has requested money to fund the war in Iraq while refusing to answer our questions about this war and provide a comprehensive strategy for bringing our troops home," explained Representative Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin. "In our democracy, the Congress controls the pursestrings and we must make sure that our servicemen and women have the equipment and supplies that they need. Beyond that, before allocating more funds, we must insist that the administration articulate the conditions necessary to bring our troops home, and push them to do that as soon as possible. The administration's refusal to address that is quite astounding to me and should be of great concern to all Americans who believe in accountability and checks and balances."

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

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