The way things are headed, in two or three months we’ll have 95 percent of the American people wanting a pullout from the war in Iraq and 95 percent of Congress obediently voting for funds to keep the troops there. At the start of October only 27 percent of Americans wanted Congress to greenlight the $190 billion Bush has requested to go on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Washington Post summed up its poll, conducted with ABC News, thus: “Most Americans do not believe Congress has gone far enough in opposing the war.”
Here we are in the gray dawn of the twenty-first century, but only a handful of senators and reps dare stand up to be counted on matters of war and peace. The Kyl-Lieberman amendment recommending that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps be placed on the US government’s blacklist as a “terrorist organization” was clearly hatched as a way for Bush to attack Iran without seeking Congressional approval. It cantered through the Senate with only twenty-two opposing. The House approved a similar measure with only sixteen nays, just twelve of them Democrats.
The day before the Senate vote, in the Democratic debate at Dartmouth College, candidates Clinton, Obama and Edwards refused to commit to having all US troops out of Iraq by the end of a first White House term–January 2013. The shortest timeline for withdrawal is offered in Senator Russell Feingold’s amendment, which requires troops to be out of Iraq by June 30, 2008. That amendment has only twelve Senate co-sponsors, Clinton and Obama conspicuous by their absence.
The Petraeus hearings showed us the feeble state of the antiwar forces on the Hill. A few senators grandstanding for their one-liners to be flashed up on CNN doesn’t add up to anything more than popgun combat. No one laid a glove on Petraeus, and that failure is very significant.
Winslow Wheeler worked on the Hill for thirty-one years as a staffer for various senators from both sides of the aisle, also for the GAO. These days he’s director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. His regular bulletins on defense matters, particularly military budgets and appropriations, are always knowledgeable and succinct. He really knows how the system works.
In the wake of Petraeus’s easy victories in hearings in both Senate and House, Wheeler looked back at the 1972 hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, taking testimony from Secretary of State William Rogers on the war in Vietnam.* The committee’s chairman, William Fulbright, took Rogers apart, exposing time after time the Secretary’s evasions and lies. Fulbright, Wheeler recalled, “knew all the facts, uncovered by an assiduous professional staff that discovered a whole lot more than what the Defense and State departments wanted them to know.” As the bruised Rogers and his entourage filed out, Wheeler heard one of the Secretary’s staff hiss angrily to an underling, “Find out how that son of a bitch found all that out.”
Petraeus endured no such relentless interrogation. There were no angry hisses, only smiles at the conclusion of his claims for the success of his “surge.” Yet the facts that the senators and representatives could and should have thrown at him were all available, many of them supplied to the relevant Congressional staffers by Wheeler’s organization in the form of body counts, information from the United Nations and other sources, plus polling data from the people best qualified to assess whether their security has been enhanced by the surge–namely, Iraqis.
But the senators and reps didn’t use the material as Fulbright would have done. Beyond a few brief interrogatory flurries, they mostly stuck to their scripted speeches. As Wheeler concludes,
All that was politicking, not oversight. Oversight…means finding out exactly what the executive branch is doing and what is going on in the world. Only that, not posturing, provides a sound foundation for competent legislation and the political coalitions needed to enact it. Put simply, if you do not know with some precision what the problem is, you are not going to solve it. And if you don’t have the data, mere rhetoric will not always save you, especially when you fail to refute the opposing case.
How good is the staff work on the Hill these days? Ideally, in the battles that matter, it should be a blend of savage investigative zeal and experience in what stones to turn over and where to dig out the pay dirt. How many battle-scarred old-timers are there, like Wheeler and Jake Lewis, who remember how it was done? How many eager reporters are there for them to leak to? The Clinton era did dreadful damage to conscientious and effective oversight. The Democrats were out of power on the Hill for more than a decade, until 2007. I know of one 50-year-old who recently and successfully applied for a good staff job on an important committee who thinks he got the job partly because there weren’t that many applicants.
And even if you have a terrific staff rustling up devastating data, you still need a senator or rep with the wits and moxie to turn the material into an effective interrogation. These days you can sit and watch C-SPAN all year long and rarely see anything beyond camera-preening by the likes of Chuck Schumer. Arlen Specter can take out the razor when he wants to. So can Feingold. So can a few Republican ex-prosecutors. Not many others. You can chart Ted Kennedy’s decline in effectiveness by the decline in the quality of his staff. Dig out a clip of Jack Brooks of Texas roasting someone in the witness chair to see how it can be done. The place just isn’t what it used to be.
*Wheeler’s important piece “Posturing at the Petraeus Hearings: Where Was the Oversight?” can be found at counterpunch.org/wheeler10032007.html.