There’s nothing that interests Congress more than self-preservation. That, for example, is what keeps the pork flowing back home. But the nation’s recent wars—messy, lengthy and inconclusive—have become radioactive. The public has turned on them, which has led lawmakers to go to great lengths to keep their fingerprints off of them.
The GOP-controlled Congress has refused to authorize the near-daily U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria that have been taking place since last August. Given that, it was jarring to hear Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken declare Wednesday that the campaign has killed “more than 10,000” ISIS militants in the name of the American people.
Republican presidential candidates, nearly all of them lawmakers, have blasted President Obama for his conduct of the air campaign against ISIS. Yet they have refused to offer specifics on how they would wage the war. More critically, they have refused even to authorize it. “I believe the President must come to Congress to begin a war and that Congress has a duty to act,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul said back in December. “Right now, this war is illegal until Congress acts pursuant to the Constitution and authorizes it.”
Six months, and thousands of bombs and missiles later, nothing has changed. That’s why it was refreshing to see the House Appropriations Committee take step toward responsibility when it passed its version of the Pentagon’s 2016 spending bill Tuesday.
In a sign of unease over Congress going AWOL in the war on ISIS, the committee voted 29-22 that “Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force against [ISIS].” The Obama Administration has cited congressional authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002 to justify its ongoing aerial attacks against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.
But the push for the vote didn’t come from some Republican hawk. Instead, it came as an amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who gained notoriety as the only lawmaker to vote against using military force following the 9/11 attacks.
“More than eight months into yet another open-ended war in the Middle East, Congress has yet to live up to its constitutional responsibility to debate and vote on this war,” Lee said after the vote. “The President sent Congress an authorization [request, in February],” she added. “It’s past time that the Speaker [John Boehner] allow a debate and vote on such a critical national security issue.” Of course, a committee vote is a long way from winning approval from the full House, never mind the Senate.
Obama’s request proved a double-edged sword that kept it from winning congressional buy-in. He sought Democratic backing by ruling out “enduring offensive ground-combat operations.” But that didn’t sway war-weary Democrats. At the same time, the language disturbed Republicans, who viewed it as half-hearted.
Consequently, the nation has been waging war against ISIS for nearly a year without explicit congressional backing.
In today’s polarized America, that may be a good way to try to win the next election. But it’s a terrible way to try to win the next war.