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Changing Iraq Strategies Reflect Power Shift to House Leadership

The House Democratic leadership's sudden decision to schedule the next major Iraq "redeployment" vote on July 12, instead of waiting until mid-September as originally planned, speaks volumes about the extent to which power in the House has shifted from its committees to party leaders over the past three decades.

When the House last addressed the issue on May 24 by passing the post-veto supplemental spending bill for Iraq (containing benchmarks but no withdrawal dates), the majority leadership signaled its future game plan by inserting a provision in the special rule. The provision was, in effect, a promissory note for a future vote on a specific U.S. troop withdrawal deadline from Iraq.

Section 4 of the special rule for the supplemental stated that when the House next considers "a bill making supplemental appropriations for Iraq or Afghanistan for fiscal year 2008," it shall first be to consider a nonamendable amendment to add the text of H.R. 2451 to the bill. H.R. 2451 was introduced by Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) the day before the special rule was brought to the floor. It calls for the completion of "the redeployment of the Armed Forces and defense contractors from Iraq by June 30, 2008."

The scheme was part of the grand strategy of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team to force the next big showdown on Iraq in September on a war supplemental after separately passing a non-war Defense appropriations bill. By then, Congress would have the administration's final progress reports both on the troop surge and Iraqi government benchmarks. Obey's withdrawal bill was referred to the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. Neither chairman co-sponsored the measure, and it's not clear whether their committees would even consider the measure before it was offered as an amendment to the supplemental. Even if they did, their hands were tied on its wording.

But that plan was upstaged (but not superseded) by Pelosi's announcement on July 10 that "the House will vote later this week" on a bill sponsored by Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) "to change course in Iraq" by beginning "the responsible redeployment of U.S. troops within 120 days" and completing redeployment by April 1, 2008. The bill had not appeared on the Democratic Whip notice for the week and was only introduced on the same day as Pelosi's announcement. Needless to say, it, too, would not have the benefit of a committee hearing, deliberations or recommendations.

Ironically, Skelton's Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was scheduled the day of the vote to hold the first in a three-part series of hearings on "A Third Way: Alternative Futures for Iraq," and the House Foreign Affairs Committee had scheduled a hearing on "Policy Options on Iraq" for July 17 — five days after Thursday's surprise vote.

The fact is, House and Senate military and foreign affairs committees have been very active in holding hearings on Iraq and Afghanistan this year. Unfortunately, none of the bills considered by either chamber has been the product of those deliberations. Instead, they have been solely the product of the majority leadership in both chambers, with their eyes focused laserlike on opinion polls and the 2008 elections.

Back in 1972, the House had the opposite problem as it attempted to transition from a committee-chairman-dominated system to one in which there would be more power sharing between committees, the Democratic Caucus and the elected leadership, with the latter ultimately setting the course. The problem was that the Democratic leadership wasn't quite ready to lead this new power troika.

Consequently, in June 1972 anti-war Democrats made their move in the Caucus. On a 135 to 66 vote, the Caucus asked the House Foreign Affairs Committee to report a joint resolution in 30 days calling for an end to U.S. military involvement in hostilities in or over Indochina no later than Oct. 1.

Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) sponsored the resolution in committee, but it was supplanted on a 19-18 vote by a Republican substitute supporting President Richard Nixon's peace terms. Undaunted, Foreign Affairs Chairman Thomas Morgan (D-Pa.) shifted gears in August and moved to attach the war-ending language to the foreign military aid bill. This time he narrowly prevailed, 18-17 (thanks to some strategic absences and vote switches), with five Democrats opposed.

The bill was considered by the House under an open amendment process (as most legislation was in those days). Two amendments were offered to the Indochina withdrawal section: a substitute by Rep. Charles Whalen (R-Ohio) to move the withdrawal date to Dec. 31, 1972, which was defeated 109 to 304; and an amendment by Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) to strike the underlying withdrawal deadline altogether, which was adopted 228 to 178. Eighty House Democrats voted against the Caucus position.

Most of the Democratic leadership opposed a withdrawal deadline, including Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.), Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.) and Caucus Chairman Tiger Teague (D-Texas). The lone leadership proponent of withdrawal was Majority Whip Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.).

The liberal Democratic Study Group eventually succeeded in the '70s in stripping committee chairmen of many of their powers, primarily through Caucus rules changes. Party leaders gradually filled the resulting power vacuum as it became apparent that the Caucus was a clumsy instrument for policymaking.

Today, majority party leaders work tirelessly to accommodate the electoral and policy interests of their liberal and moderate caucus members while giving committee chairmen their due respect — a seat at the table (or at least their name on a bill). But one can't help but wonder how much better we would be served if Congress' Iraq policy was fashioned through open deliberations in committee.


Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.



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