Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, January 17, 2019

WASHINGTON — There was a moment in the last quarter-century when the Congress of the United States made the nation proud. It did so across all its usual lines of division: Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, hawk and dove.

In early January 1991, the Senate and the House staged searching and often eloquent debates over the first President Bush’s decision to wage a war to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. The arguments, a prelude to votes on resolutions endorsing military action, were almost entirely free of partisan rancor and the usual questioning of adversaries’ motives.

The war was so successful we now forget how divided Congress was. In the Senate, the vote was 52 to 47, with 10 Democrats crossing party lines to embrace  the Republican president’s policy. The House backed the war resolution, 250 to 183. Roughly a third of Democrats voted yes.

Far from leaving the country torn and bitter, the debate brought us together. No one on either side pretended that the choice was easy. And staging congressional consideration of the decision to act in Kuwait after the 1990 election meant that short-term political strategies were not dragged into a debate about longer-term global strategy.

One person who remembers that earlier debate is Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House minority whip, so it’s not surprising that he has proposed that Congress hold a full debate about President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State after this fall’s elections.

In an interview last week, Hoyer said he believes the president already has the authority to act. But voters have a right to expect Congress to take a stand on a matter this serious, and he added that “we are stronger if we are acting in concert in a bipartisan way.” Hoyer proposes a two-step process involving, first, quick congressional approval of Obama’s proposal to train and arm Syrian rebels, and then a broader debate about the president’s overall policy after the country votes on Nov. 4.

Hoyer’s idea is wise for another reason that a practicing politician probably can’t voice: A post-election vote accepts that politics is what it is. We can get all moralistic about this. We can sermonize that politicians should always vote their consciences and should never, ever think about their own fates or the fate of their party. But to say this is to demand a degree of selflessness from men and women in the political trade that we never ask of anyone else — with the exception, of course, of our soldiers in combat.

And let’s face the fact that most politicians and the vast majority of our citizens typically feel a much larger investment in matters outside the realm of foreign policy. Most care primarily about the impact the elections will have on taxes, spending, economics or social issues. When politicians debate war policy, they shouldn’t be worrying about electoral outcomes that will affect all these other concerns in the next Congress.

A post-election debate would make it easier for Republicans who support the president’s policy to say why, and for Democrats who oppose it to ask the difficult questions his approach invites. Both sides could more frankly weigh the costs involved against other priorities.

The major objection to Hoyer’s plan is that delaying a full debate is itself  irresponsible and the president shouldn’t be acting without a new congressional vote.

Here again, the parallel with 1991 is instructive.

Without congressional authorization, Bush had already sent 500,000 American troops to Saudi Arabia to prepare for war. He insisted he did not need Congress’ approval to put them into action. His request for a resolution was essentially a courtesy. It came just a week before the deadline he had set for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait — and, as it happened, just nine days before the war started.

There is reason to admire Bush for waiting. Politically, he might have profited from making the war an issue in the 1990 midterm campaign. He preferred to wait. The second President Bush demanded a congressional vote on the Iraq War in the fall of 2002, before the midterms. This almost certainly helped Republican candidates and drew additional votes for his policy from Democrats fearful of bucking the president so soon after Sept. 11, 2001. But the result was a politicized debate that did not help build consensus. This came back to haunt the 43rd president.

We need a responsible Congress to begin the search for a sustainable foreign policy. An unconstrained debate after this fall’s campaign is the place to start.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Ralph Alswang/Center For American Progress Action Fund/Flickr

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

  • Share this on Google+0
  • Share this on Linkedin0
  • Share this on Reddit0
  • Print this page
  • 0

16 responses to “Can Congress Be Responsible?”

  1. Dominick Vila says:

    Dione is correct, our political leaders should not fear foreign policy decisions. Our choices when we vote are influenced primarily by domestic issues and what is best for us as a nation and as individuals, rather than a stable flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to China or a prosperous global economy.
    The most requirement to succeed in defeating the latest threat to our interests abroad is to be united. We were united in 1991, when George H.W. Bush proposed a limited invasion of Iraq to drive Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait; and we were united when George W. Bush proposed the invasion of Iraq based on allegations of a WMD stockpile that threatened the security of the world, and the subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein from power in the aftermath of 9/11. Regardless of how

    deceitful some of those claims or justifications were, the fact is that our military success was influenced, in part, by the fact that most Americans supported our Presidents, our government, and our troops.

    Unfortunately, the political climate that prevails today is so poisoned, and the desire to score political points to win elections is so intense, that the probability of a united front, or even a semblance of unity, seems to be too much to ask from those who place their political careers ahead of the interests of the country.

    • TZToronto says:

      I think you are being too kind. It isn’t even a matter of scoring points. Republicans in Congress and elsewhere want one thing–for President Obama to fail–and this is a great opportunity for them to contribute to that failure, even if it means promoting the very dangers that should be eliminated. I will be very, very surprised if the whole thing does not turn into an attack on President Obama’s handling of the situation.

      • Dominick Vila says:

        They are already blaming President Obama. I watched an interview of Newt Gingrich on CNN about a week ago, and could not believe his response when after criticizing President Obama’s handling of the situation and being challenged by Wolf Blitzer to elaborate and provide an alternative, he could only come up with a lame excuse about foreign policy that did not make any sense at all.

        • TZToronto says:

          It never ceases to amaze me how the GOP is so critical of anything President Obama says or does but, when asked what they’d do differently, seem to have no problem saying, “Don’t look at me. It’s not my job.”

  2. bobnstuff says:

    I blame the problem of a divided government on two factors. One being the media needs conflict to get people to watch, No one peck out their window when the neighbors are quiet but the can’t help but crack the blinds when the hear a fight. The members of congress have learned this fact and will create conflict just to get into the news. Congress has become a reality TV show!

    • plc97477 says:

      For a reality show they don’t seem to understand reality very well, although reality tv is not all that real.

    • TZToronto says:

      One only has to look at most of the “pundits” who appear on CNN. It’s rare when a Democrat and a Republican are not appearing together to create the conflict you write about. The problem is that very often there are not really two sides to the story, but CNN thinks that people won’t watch unless there is the possibility of controversy.

  3. Eleanore Whitaker says:

    At this very moment in US history, truth, facts and responsibility for one’s actions are at the lowest point. This is a learned technique that comes straight out of corporate bibles where taking accountability for one’s decisions and actions is limited to CYA. Today, anything that gets the desired result is fine and dandy even when that includes lies, cheating, dishonesty and slime ball tactics any card carrying CEO would be proud of.

    All anyone has to do to prove this is look at how punishments today are meted out. Two lawyers both involved in the business of duking it out to see who can lie the most to get their accused off or avoid consequences of their actions.

    No civilization ever survived with such massive enabling of liars, cheats, scoundrels and covetous morons. The reason is obvious. Sooner than later, provable facts and truth force the energy of good to balance evil.

    We now have a generation of imbeciles out there who think CYA is the only way to move up the ladder of “success.” Thus, success becomes nothing more than some bizarre contest to see who can be “first.”

    No. Congress won’t grow up. They are pre-programmed by their biggest campaign donors who own more than their fair share of wealth to do and say whatever dirty, filthy acts these greedy wealthy can cover up and make manure look like Chanel No. 5.

  4. TMZ1928 says:

    Harry Reid is the biggest problem. It’s hard to understand why his colleagues elected him to the leadership position in the first place, and why they stand silently by while he fails to bring anything to a vote and slanders people with his lies from the safety of the Senate floor.

    • highpckts says:

      Excuse me? Reid? Don’t you mean Boehner? It is one upmanship all the way around! Nothing gets done because it’s the right thing to do! So obviously nothing gets done! One side is no better than the other! This all started to go downhill when BIG money got involved! I know there was always money involved but never like this with the upper 1% calling the shots! I honestly don’t know what will ever change that!

    • Independent1 says:

      What nonsense! Harry isn’t sitting on any legislation that either Mitch McConnell has filibustered or threatened to filibuster; or that the GOP has intentionally included poison pills in knowing full well that the Dems in the Senate would not vote on the idiot legislation that the Tea Party nitwits in the House passed intentionally to WASTE TIME!!!

    • charleo1 says:

      It’s only difficult for one to understand why the majority of Senators stand, “silently by,” as you put it. While he, [Reid] fails to bring bills passed in the House to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Until one considers the kind of partisan, non-starters, and sometimes just unreasonable, and or, symbolic nonsense, being sent to Leader Reid for the Senate’s consideration. A good example of this, has been fruitless, and quite frankly bizarre practice of passing the exact same law repealing the Affordable Care Act, dozens of times. With absolutely no expectation of it being taken up in the Senate. Not to mention the less than a snowball’s chances of President Obama ever signing it. Now I’m not going to tell you I have read all of the bills. Still the House, on the Affordable Care Act alone, have solidified their reputation as far as I’m concerned. The House Republicans, and more specifically, the anti-government T-Party faction, which holds in it’s numbers the majority of the majority, that Speaker Boehner has made a perquisite to bring legislation passed in the Senate, to not only to his floor for a vote. But as a requirement to even enter into the reconciliation process. Yes, the 113th Congress will go down as the least productive Congress in our Nation’s history. At a time of unprecedented challenges. And any lying Harry Reid does on the Senate floor, is a matter of public record. Not the safest place to tell tall tales.

  5. ExRadioGuy15 says:

    Ya know, it’s really annoying to me, a Non-Affiliated voter who hasn’t been a member of a political party since 1990, that media organizations continue with the ridiculous “false equivalency” argument/meme.
    “Can Congress be responsible?” is just such an argument. So’s the “partisan bickering” argument. Listen up, people….
    BOTH PARTIES (DEMO AND GOP) ARE NOT, I REPEAT, NOT THE SAME! False equivalency is the favorite argument of the Firebaggers (Libertarians, whether in the GOP or not) and GOP Progressives/Moderates. The GOP Progressives/Moderates employ false equivalency for two reasons, neither of them good: first, to make themselves feel better about the sad fact that their party is Fascist, corrupt, greedy, bigoted, hypercritical, insane, etc. Second, to continue to justify voting Republican.
    Nearly every problem in politics these days (all except one) are attributable to one thing and one thing only: the insurrectionist and seditious obstruction of the GOP.
    Media organizations need to do what they’re supposed to be doing: get at and exposing the truth and facts of matters. If media organizations refuse to do that, they need to get out of the “news” business. 🙁 ssmdh

  6. Tony Torres says:

    All of this division is due to having a multi-color POTUS, plain and simple. I am not saying there wouldn’t be division and bickering but I think it would be the normal way..pre Obama. Our country was already dividing in many way but united in anything that would threaten the USA. Once Obama was elected the GOP has thrown all patriotism, loyalty and semblance of normal governing out the door, just to screw Obama and of course the rest of us. It will be probably be some time but if a white person becomes POTUS I guarantee we will return to what the GOP would consider a proper person is in charge. The GOP hates Obama so much that they don’t give a damn what the country/world think of their actions.
    So NO, Congress will not assist our President on anything that will remotely be consider a win for him. Stupid Idiots!!! Traitors!!

  7. Jim Thomas says:

    Spoken like the establishment shill that he is, Mr. Dionne fully supports the violation of our Constitution that has become routine for our Presidents and Congress. Why pay attention to a little thing like the declartaion of war when, after all, there is an election coming up. This is the kind of nonsense that has become mainstream for the corrupt corporate media. And may I mention that the claim by our “great leaders” that ISIS poses an immenent threat to this Country is also nonsense. I don’t think that they are going to be able to drive their shiny new US Humvees across the ocean to invade this Country. And it might be a good idea to stop arming such organizations as a good start to deter their prosperity. This is just another episode of the ludicrous dishonesty and hypocrisy of US foreign policy. Has anyone noticed that our great Middle Eastern allies in this latest “war” (Saudi Arabis, etc.) are the principal movers who financed and armed these terrorists. Anyone who expects a good outcome from more bombing and war by this Country in the Middle East is foolish indeed. Too bad that we are so incompetent at diplomacy.

  8. charles king says:

    We have a bunch of Plutocracts running the show in America today. President Obama has done his job in protecting the American People from the Plutocracts Who? has destroyed the middle class in America by not providing jobs, the system is Capitalis, Not Capitalist Democracy in Which? everyone apply their two-cents. A 1% of the system are controling 99% of the econ this will not help the system to maintain its self cause the working poor will not be able to contribute to the overhead of keeping the country running. MONIES, greedy Capitalistic Pigs, States And Federal Representives Not doing their job, Plutocracts selling off the People’s Assets and privatizing the property’s of the public schools,this kind of management will bring down the Whole. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.