Is Congress Resurgent on War Powers?
Panelists: Congressman Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House Armed Services Committee; Congressman Todd Akin (R-Mo.), ranking minority member, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House Armed Services Committee; Matthew Green, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Politics, Catholic University; Karen DeYoung, senior diplomatic correspondent, The Washington Post.
Since the Democratic takeover of Congress in January, Congress has been more conscientious about exercising its constitutional war powers. That was the consensus of the four panelists at the Congress Project seminar September 17 on the question, "Is Congress Resurgent on War Powers?"
Congressman Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) said the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which he chairs, is one example of that. The subcommittee had been abolished by Speaker Newt Gingrich when Republicans took control of the House in 1995 (as part of an overall mandated reduction of the House subcommittees). When Democrats retook the House in the 2006 elections, the new chairman of Armed Services, Congressman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) insisted on reconstituting the subcommittee. Snyder gave examples of the oversight hearings and investigations his subcommittee has conducted since the beginning of the year, including a four-part series on "A Third Way: Alternatives for the Future of Iraq."
Congressman Todd Akin (R-Mo.) concurred that Congress has been more active in its oversight responsibilities. "It's only natural that a majority that is of the same party as the President is more reluctant to investigate and criticize its own Administration." Akin, the ranking minority member on Snyder's subcommittee, commended the chairman on being very diligent and fair. "We may not always agree on things, but the process has been open and bipartisan, and that's allowed us to do some serious work-—much of it away from the glare of the cameras." But both Members agreed that their work on the susbcommittee stands in contrast to positions taken by the leadership of both parties in Congress.
Matthew Green, assistant professor of politics at Catholic University, in a paper prepared for the seminar, supported the observations of the two Members of Congress. "Parties tend to be more critical of a President at war when he is of the opposite party," said Green. "That's not always been the case." Green cited Speakers like Joe Martin (R-Mass.), Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), and John McCormack (D-Mass.) who felt it was the duty of congressional leadership to support the President during times of war. That began to change with Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) who lost favor with a majority of his own caucus for supporting President Nixon during the Vietnam War. Since then, attitudes toward a President who wages war have become very partisan, and Congress has become more emboldened as the public turns against a war and the President's approval ratings fall.
Karen DeYoung, who has been covering the interactions between Congress, the President and the military over the Iraq situation, noted that the President's pledge to implement the recommendations of General David Petraeus in beginning to draw down the number of troops in Iraq is "condition based," that is, dependent on the situation on the ground next March when the next report comes due and decisions are made. "There may be a difference between what the Administration would like to do and what it actually does. DeYoung agreed that Congress has been resurgent on its war powers responsibilities but does not see Congress enacting any significant legislation that will change the course of the U.S. commitment.
DeYoung and the other panelists agreed that both parties will remain polarized in their positions and that reduces any chances for any bipartisan compromise that could be enacted. But, on an optimistic note, DeYoung pointed out that the Congress did succeed in enacting the "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government, based on goals the President enunciated earlier this year. So, don't be surprised if Congress again takes some of the most recent hopes and expectations put forward by the President, Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and translates them into legislative language, said DeYoung.