Vice President Dick Cheney has made it clear that he does not believe Congress has much to say about the war in Iraq, in particular, or about foreign policy in general. With repeated assertions that the country “cannot run a war by committee,” the man who defended the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra wrongdoing and counseled the first President Bush to omit consultation with Congress before launching the Gulf War of 1991 has established the current administration’s view regarding which branch of government is in charge when it comes to warmaking. “The president is the commander in chief,” growled Cheney in a recent appearance on Fox News. “He’s the one who has to make these tough decisions.”
President Bush has dutifully echoed Cheney’s line with clumsy but apparently heartfelt references to himself as “the decider.”
Were it not for the small matter of the Constitution, the Vice President and his charge might be convincing on this matter.
Unfortunately for these transitory occupants of the White House, the Constitution affords them no comfort.
The document is clear in its language: “The Congress shall have the power… To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water; To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years; To provide and maintain a navy; To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces; To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…”
If that makes it sound as if control over matters military was placed squarely in the hands of the House and Senate, then the founders succeeded in communicating their intent. James Madison and the other authors of the Constitution were exceptionally blunt about their hope that the the president would serve as a mere commander-in-chief, implementing the directions of the Congress with regard to the targets or military actions, the characters of those actions and their durations.
The founders bluntly stated their fears about executive excess in a time of military conflict. “War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement,” warned Madison, who explained that, “In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”
The Constitution was written “to chain the dogs of war” by founders who believed it essential that the endeavor be “run by committee” — with the legislative branch fully empowered to check and balance the ambition, the avarice and the vanity of the executive.
Only in the spin-driven politics of the post-9/11 era could Cheney and Bush continue to peddle their fantasies about executive supremacy and an imperial presidency. They have taken advantage, masterfully at some points, brutally at others, of an on-bended-knee Washington press corps and a spineless Congress to control the dialogue and the direction of the country for more than four years. And, in so doing, they have sunk the nation deeper and deeper into the quagmire that is Iraq and the disaster that is their approach to a world that no longer trusts or even understands the actions of the United States.
Cheney and Bush have gotten away with a lot. But they have not succeeded in erasing the Constitution.
On Tuesday, the primacy of the essential document will be reasserted, as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold chairs a full Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the topic of “Exercising Congress’s Constitutional Power to End a War.”
“Congress holds the power of the purse and if the President continues to advance his failed Iraq policy, we have the responsibility to use that power to safely redeploy our troops from Iraq,” says Feingold, a Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution. “This hearing will help inform my colleagues and the public about Congress’s power to end a war and how that power has been used in the past.”
Among the witnesses Feingold intends to call are Duke University School of Law professor Walter Dellinger, the former Solicitor General of the United States, Louis Fisher of the Library of Congress and several other Constitutional scholars
But the purpose of the hearing is anything but academic.
“I will soon be introducing legislation to use the power of the purse to end what is clearly one of the greatest mistakes in the history of our nation’s foreign policy,” explains Feingold, who in recent weeks has emerged as the most ardent advocate for using the power of the purse to force a shift in administration policy.
When that legislation is introduced, there will be those who suggest that Feingold and his allies are moving the country toward a “Constitutional crisis”–with Congress demanding the redeployment of troops from Iraq and Bush refusing.
In fact, the crisis has already occurred. The executive branch is operating far outside the limits of the authority afforded it by the Constitution.
Congress has not only the power but the responsibility to restore the system of checks and balances, and with it an appropriate regard for the founding document of a great yet threatened republic.
John Nichols’ new book, The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at
The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at