The Big Idea

Dogs and Democrats

Why Congress won’t stop Bush’s surge.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Several decades ago, psychologist Martin Seligman developed his theory of “learned helplessness.” Subjected to repeated punishment, animals and humans often come to believe they have no control over what happens to them, whether they actually do or not. In Seligman’s original experiment, dogs subjected to repeated electrical shocks would prostrate themselves and whine, even when escaping the abuse lay within their power.

As with canines, so with congressmen. In theory, Democrats now control a co-equal branch of government. In practice, they seem so traumatized by their years of mistreatment at the hands of a contemptuous executive that they continue to cower and simper whenever master waves a stick in their direction.

This phenomenon is at its most pitiable when it comes to Congress’ powers over national security, terrorism, and war. Last Sunday, Sen. Joe Biden, the Democrats’ dean of foreign policy, was asked on Meet the Press what he intended to do when President Bush announced his intention to send additional American troops to Iraq. “There’s not much I can do about it,” Biden shot back. “Not much anybody can do about it. He’s commander in chief. … [I]t’ll be a tragic mistake, in my view, but as a practical matter, there’s no way to say, ‘Mr. President, stop.’ ”

This has been, with some variation, the attitude of most of Biden’s colleagues in both houses. Nearly all of them think that the war in Iraq is a losing proposition, which Bush’s pending escalation will make worse. Most favor gradually reducing the number of Americans deployed in Iraq, which is what the Iraq Study Group recommended. Yet they’re acting, for the most part, like onlookers at the scene of a disaster, mysteriously paralyzed and unable to act. At best, they’re willing to consider expressing their disapproval to Bush through a nonbinding resolution, also known as “talking to the hand.”

In fact, congressional Democrats have the power to stop the war any day they want. Rejecting additional funding for the war, which 12 senators (including John Kerry) voted to do in 2003, is merely the most dramatic and least politically attractive of their options. Congress can pass a law that says the president cannot send more than a set number of troops to Iraq. It can limit the length of military tours of duty. Or it can enforce a specific deadline for partial or complete withdrawal. A few anti-war types are, in fact, proposing such drastic measures. Sen. Ted Kennedy wants to require the president to ask Congress for the authority to send more troops. Rep. Jack Murtha wants to insist that more “ready” troops be stationed at home. But such voices remain a small, if vocal, minority. Most would rather kvetch.

Congress learned to be helpless by standing aside as successive presidents asserted that the war power belongs to them alone. As you may recall, that’s not what the Constitution says. Article I, which gives the legislative branch the sole power to declare war, also puts it in charge of creating, funding, and regulating the armed forces. But every president since Harry Truman has taken the position that it’s unreasonable to have to ask permission from Congress in advance of military action.

Congress’ frustration with being brushed aside boiled over during Vietnam, resulting in the passage of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Since Nixon, all presidents have maintained that this law—which creates a 60-day period after the onset of hostilities in which they must either get congressional approval or withdraw troops—is an unconstitutional infringement of their Article II powers as commander in chief. Both Presidents Bush have taken the position that they needed no congressional authorization for their Gulf Wars—and Congress, in both cases, chose to avoid a showdown by handing them the authorization anyhow. This has left unsettled the constitutional question of whether the president can go to war over Congress’ objection.

But Congress’ power to terminate a war seems even clearer than its power to forbid one in the first place. A provision of the War Powers Resolution states specifically that the president must remove forces when Congress so orders. Faced with military deployments they disliked in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, legislators did not hesitate to assert this authority during the Clinton years. Perhaps the most striking example was our military intervention in Somalia, which Clinton inherited from his predecessor, and which he was criticized for turning into an effort at “nation-building”—before that went from Republican dirty word to Republican policy in Iraq. In 1993, the House passed an amendment saying U.S. forces could remain in Somalia only for one more year. The Senate didn’t follow suit, but two subsequent defense appropriations bills cutting off funding for the deployment did pass. Congress also drew limits around how U.S. personnel and bases could be used.

When they say they’re incapable of resisting Bush’s plan, what congressional Democrats really mean is that they’re afraid to oppose it. With only 17 percent of respondents supporting the “surge,” according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll, it is hard to see how voting against more troops would be an act of political suicide. But after years of being called weak, unsupportive of the troops, micromanaging, and unpatriotic, flinching at conservative stares has become a Pavlovian Democratic response. Earlier this week, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the war in Iraq remained necessary because Americans “don’t want another Sept. 11.” It’s hard to imagine anyone being buffaloed by this non sequitur at this point, yet many Democrats clearly still are. Pretend powerlessness also frees the congressional majority from unwanted responsibility. By feigning helplessness, Democrats leave the onus for whatever happens next in Iraq on Bush.

There are plausible arguments for supporting a surge and some very good ones for rejecting a precipitous pullout. But Democrats who argue for “redeployment” and fail to act on their convictions don’t have a leg to stand on. Their passivity does harm that goes well beyond the immediate circumstances. By abdicating their constitutional role, they continue to feed the executive Frankenstein Bush and Cheney have created. If they’re serious about ending this war, Democrats should quit yelping and bite back.