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Razzle-Dazzle Time In Washington

By Kevin B. Zeese

28 November, 2006

The Democrats reaped the benefit of voter anger at the Iraq war and occupation on November 7 and regained control of both chambers of Congress. Will the Democrats satisfy the desire to end the Iraq War? Sadly, the initial signs are that voters are likely to get a lot of razzle-dazzle in Washington, but not much change in policy.

Both parties got the message and are already putting on a show for voters. President Bush immediately accepted the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and has been highlighting an internal review of Iraq by the Department of Defense and an external review by the Baker-Hamilton led Iraq Study Group set up by Congress. Now he’s on his way to the Middle East to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He’s even dropped the ‘stay the course’ rhetoric.

The Democrats are also starting their show for the voters. Senator Biden is promising hearings. Incoming Speaker Pelosi is saying she wants to end this war. Senator Levin is urging the beginning of withdrawal in the next few months. Rep. Conyers and Waxman are planning investigations.

But not too far under the razzle-dazzle there are some troubling signs. President Bush is saying that losing is not an option but that “the task in Iraq is going to take a while” and concluded “We'll succeed unless we quit.” He warned the Iraq Study Group of any sudden change in course saying “I believe that it's important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security but for the security of the Middle East.” And, leaks out of the internal DoD review show they have already rejected the “Go Home” option of getting out of Iraq and are leaning toward a hybrid solution of “Go Big” by increasing the number of troops by 20,000 to 30,000 temporarily and “Go Long” by planning for a long-term stay in Iraq. Looks like “stay the course” in reality if not in rhetoric.

What can Congress do in the face of a commander in chief that will not change course? In October, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino asked, “How would they force the president to withdraw troops? Yell?” On September 26 before the election, Rep. Charlie Rangel explained to the Hill how it could be stopped, “You’ve got to be able to pay for the war, don’t you?” As John Walsh wrote recently:

“Bush is now asking for another $127 billion to ‘stay the course.’ If either the House or the Senate refuses to pass that request, the war cannot be prosecuted. It only requires a simple majority in one chamber House or Senate. That is it. The power is there.”

Indeed, the most important power the Democrats have is the “power of the purse.” This is the first article described in the Constitutional powers of the Congress. The Constitution does not to put war making power in the hands of the president. Only Congress has the power to declare war, and beyond that, as James Madison said during the Virginia ratifying convention, Congress's power of the purse controls the president’s war-making power. Congress has complete control over the raising, funding, and size of the military. It can block a president's war-making simply by refusing to allocate funds for a conflict. Senator Byrd described this as:

“. . . the fulcrum of the people's leverage. As enshrined in the Constitution, it is one of the chief protectors of all our cherished freedoms. This control of the purse is one of the most effective bulwarks ever constructed to repel a despot, control a tyrant, or shackle the hands of an overreaching chief executive.”

Before the election Rep. Neil Abercrombie said “If we have the majority, it’ll be because of Iraq.” Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reiterated that point and urged Rep. Jack Murtha be elected majority leader because he brought the Iraq issue to the fore. The vast majority of Democrats disagreed and elected Rep. Steny Hoyer who has opposed Murtha on the war. Indeed, most polls and commentators cited the Iraq war as the No. 1 issue in the elections. Will the Democrats use “the fulcrum of the people’s leverage?”

Sadly the leadership of the Democrats has taken the power of the purse off the table. On CNN’s Late edition on November 12, 2006 Rep. Pelosi when asked whether “the power of the purse to cut funding for the war in Iraq” was “on the table” responded “Not really.” When pressed she explained “We would not withhold our funding for the troops there.” When Wolf Blitzer pressed further noting that without the power of the purse all you can do is “make recommendations, but there’s not much more.” Pelosi did not back down from her position and instead focused on the importance of “oversight.”

Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid echoed this view when he told the Washington Post on November 15 that the “Democrats will not try to play the strongest hand they have -- using Congress's power of the purse to starve the war effort of money and force the president to move.”

Similarly, incoming Chair of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Levin was asked “what can you do with the new reins of power” at a press conference on November 13, 2006 and said “we can obtain a bipartisan statement from the Congress that the
United States has got to change course in Iraq.” But going beyond making a statement, Sen. Levin said “I'm not prepared to go beyond that at this point.” Levin calls for the beginning of troop redeployment, but does not define what that means, how many would leave Iraq and when the withdrawal would be completed.

I guess the White House was right, the Democrats will “Yell.”

If the Democrats used their most precious power what could they do? Short of starving the war of funding, they could:

- stop the funding of long-term military bases in Iraq;

- stop the funding of the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad;

- stop funding for expanding the war by sending more troops to Iraq;

- stop redeployments and stop loss orders;

- require an exit strategy and timetable;

- stop funding covert and overt military activity in Iran.

Or, they could support Rep. James McGovern’s bill that seeks to prohibit funds to deploy armed forces to Iraq but provides funds to bring them home and help rebuild the country. He says Democrats “have various positions on the war” and is skeptical the leadership will adopt an approach similar to his legislation. His bill, which will be revised and resubmitted in the new Congress, only had 18 co-sponsors.

Of course, there will be hearings on Iraq and investigations of the administration’s conduct – that’s the razzle-dazzle – but when it gets down to really ending the war, the only power the Democrats have has already been taken off the table.

What kind of show can we expect from the Democrats in Washington? A series of hearings and investigations aimed at embarrassing President Bush and the Republicans. They can examine the manipulation of intelligence that drew the U.S. into war, the awarding of contracts to friends of the administration, the chain of command that led to torture of prisoners in Iraq, and strategic and tactical decisions that led to errors in the management of the war. All of this will surely weaken and embarrass the Republicans.

Indeed, some analysts have argued that keeping the president stuck with Iraq through the remainder of his term in office, and causing the next nominee to either agree with the president or divide the Republican Party may be the best strategy for the Democrats in 2008.

Anti-war voters flexed their muscle in 2006, now is the time to strengthen it further. We need to continue to grow an anti-war electoral voting bloc (visit www.VotersForPeace.US and sign their voters pledge and urge everyone you know to do so) and we need to push the Democrats to use their power to represent our views. Yes, investigations about the build-up and management of the war should be encouraged. But, this razzle-dazzle is nowhere near enough. These investigations need to lead to holding people accountable even if it means impeachment.

But, more important, the anti-war voter needs to tell Congress not to count on their support if the war continues in 2008. We know the majority party in Congress has the power to end the war. If they fail to do so they should be held responsible and not retain majority power in 2008. The Democrats need to know that it is in their political interest to end the war, not let it drag on until the next election. We’re not going to fall for razzle-dazzle in Washington. We want results.

Kevin Zeese is director of Democracy Rising (www.DemocracyRising.US and a co-founder of Voters for Peace (www.VotersForPeace.US).

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