War Stories

The Know-Nothing Congress

What the Senate doesn’t want to learn about Iraq.

Last week, as brows furrowed and evasions spread about uranium cake, aluminum tubes, and the 16 words in the State of the Union address—all issues that feed into the larger, and more politically damaging, question of why we went to war in Iraq—the U.S. Senate held a three-day debate over the military budget, during which the Republican majority bluntly quashed seven separate attempts to require, or even simply seek, answers to these increasingly intriguing puzzles.

The attempts came in the form of amendments to the Fiscal Year 2004 Defense Appropriations Bill. All were offered by Democrats, though one was co-sponsored by a Republican. Two of the amendments went beyond the realm of oversight to advocate shifts in policy, but the other five did little more than aim to discover some facts about American foreign and military policy that more and more people would like to know—in short, to exercise traditional legislative responsibilities.

For instance, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota proposed that the president submit a budget request to Congress, within two weeks of the defense bill’s passage, covering the costs of U.S. military operations in Iraq. This seemed a logical thing to do, since a) the Pentagon’s comptroller, Dov Zakheim, has cited figures in congressional hearings, yet b) the FY04 defense budget contains not a dime for those operations. The amendment was tabled—i.e., sent back to the appropriations committee (in other words, for all intents and purposes, killed)—by a 53-41 vote, with every Republican voting to table it.

Next up, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico called on the Defense Department to submit a report to Congress, listing every person that the administration had labeled an “enemy combatant” as well as the plans the Pentagon has to charge them with a crime or boot them out of the country. One might argue that specific names should be withheld or kept classified (to keep them from fellow terrorists), but the main goal—to get a handle on how many people are being detained and whether they are receiving anything remotely resembling due process—is a vital one. The measure was co-sponsored by eight other senators, including one Republican, Arlen Specter. It was voted down 52-42, and so disciplined was the GOP’s opposition that even Specter ended up rejecting it.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California offered an amendment requiring the secretary of Defense to issue a report to Congress every 30 days on a) the total and monthly cost of the Iraqi operation; b) the number of U.S. personnel in Iraq; c) the monthly and total contributions by foreign governments and international organizations; d) the number of foreign military personnel taking part; e) the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq by date and cause; and f) all contracts exceeding $10 million that the U.S. government lets out for Iraq’s reconstruction. These are all facts that Congress has a right to know; they are fair indications to the course of U.S. policy in the region; they would be easy for the Pentagon to compile. It was voted down 50-45.

Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey proposed an amendment to create a 12-person National Commission on the Development and Use of Intelligence Related to Iraq, which would look into whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, had links with al-Qaida, attempted to acquire uranium from Africa, procured aluminum tubes for the development of nuclear weapons, possessed mobile labs for the production of weapons of mass destruction, or possessed delivery systems (i.e., missiles or aircraft) for such weapons. These are indeed the questions of the hour. The amendment was tabled 51-45.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois took a slightly different approach. Rather than forming a commission, he proposed simply to ask the administration the same questions and to withhold $50 million from intelligence operations until the questions were answered in a report. This went down 62-34.

The revealing moment came when Sen. Robert Byrd offered an amendment that expressed the “sense of Congress” that, in the future, the administration should include, as part of its annual defense budget, specific requests of money for ongoing military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. A “sense of Congress” resolution is merely that; it has no binding power. The Senate gladly approved this one, 81-15.

But Byrd, one of the Senate’s most passionate if rhetorically baroque war-critics, was daffy to offer this amendment. It gave all his hawkish foes the chance to paint themselves (in forums where the disguise might be useful) as hard-headed critics of Bush’s excessive secrecy—while at the same time relieving the president of any requirement to reveal a thing.

The few press reports about the Senate debate emphasized its importance in indicating that Democrats are starting to confront and criticize Bush on the war. First, this isn’t quite true. Most of the amendments simply demanded or requested information, though this of course can have subversive consequences. The one motion that tied the submission of a report to the appropriation of even a relatively piddling sum of money—Durbin’s—met a resounding defeat.

Second and more important, the real story here was how firmly the GOP leaders kept their rank and file in line. Until a few Republicans can be persuaded to swing, the Democrats’ assaults won’t mean a thing.