A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
The US House of Representatives took an important step last week toward the restoration of the separation of powers that was established so that Congress would check and balance presidential war-making.
But Congress has not hit its stride.
The House voted overwhelming for a measure supporting a full and accelerated end to the war in Afghanistan and expressing the sense of Congress that any post-2014 US military force in Afghanistan requires new and explicit authorization.
After twelve years of failing to check and balance the war-making of successive administrations, the House voted 305-121 for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which
[requires] the President to complete the accelerated transition of combat operations from U.S. Armed Forces to the Government of Afghanistan no later than by the end of 2013; the accelerated transition of military and security operations by the end of 2014, including the redeployment of U.S. troops; and to pursue robust negotiations to address Afghanistan’s and the region’s security and stability.
“Today is the first time in twelve years of war that a majority of the House of Representatives has voted to end the war in Afghanistan,” Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition said after last Thursday’s vote.
Because the Senate endorsed a similar measure in 2012—by a 62-33 vote—veteran antiwar activist Tom Hayden notes that “politically, the development means that the Obama administration effectively lacks any congressional authorization for a permanent military occupation of Afghanistan.”
The amendment, sponsored by Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has long been allied with antiwar groups such as Progressive Democrats of America, also “establishes the sense of Congress that should the President determine the necessity for post 2014 deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Congress should vote to authorize such a presence and mission by no later than June 2014.”
In urging his colleagues to support the amendment, McGovern (who worked on the measure with Representatives Walter Jones, R-North Carolina; Barbara Lee, D-California, and John Garamendi, D-California) explained before the vote: “It is time to end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home and take seriously our duty as a Congress.”
That stance, which once would have been considered radical, drew broad bipartisan support.
The amendment secured widespread backing from Democrats: 185 were in favor of the proposal (including Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi of California, and Steny Hoyer of Maryland) while just nine Democrats opposed it.
The amendment also won among Republicans, with 120 in favor to 112 opposed. But the Republican support came with a caveat: Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, did not vote. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-California, voted “no,” as did many prominent Republicans who chair House committees, including Oversight and Government Reform’s Darrell Issa, R-California, and Homeland Security’s Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
The position of the Republican leaders does not bode well for a broad shift in the approach of Congress to questions about military adventures abroad. That’s especially unfortunate at a time when the Obama administration is ramping up US support for Syrian rebels—a move that should be checked and balanced by Congress.
And its not just a leadership challenge.
When two members of the House—New York Republican Chris Gibson and California Democrat John Garamendi—submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have eliminated Sense of Congress language calling for a US military intervention in Syria, it failed with just 123 “yes” votes to 301 “no” votes.
So where does this leave us?
It is significant that the House has laid a marker down with regard to the Afghanistan occupation—with an appropriate signal about the need for the president to seek congressional approval for further action in the country.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who cast the lone vote in opposition to the 2001 resolution that the Bush and Obama administrations cited as justification for an open-ended “war of terror” that has sent tens of thousands of US troops to Afghanistan, was pleased by the show of backbone.
“I have long called for a responsible and immediate end to the war in Afghanistan and [last week’s] congressional action is long overdue,” said Lee. “With the passage of this amendment, it’s clear that we are turning a corner on the war in Afghanistan. It’s long past time for the longest war in America’s history to come to an end.”
But that should not be the end of it.
It is long past time for Congress to fully and unapologetically reassert its role as the branch of the federal government that is supposed to declare wars and to check and balance the administrations that pursue them.
That’s true with regard to Afghanistan. But it is equally true with regard to conflicts that are now drawing more and more US attention, including the Syria imbroglio.
So while Congress may be starting to “get it” with regard to Afghanistan, Congress does not yet “get it” with regard to its broader constitutional mandate to declare wars and check and balance all military endeavors.
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