Jun 1 2007

Misunderstanding the Constitution

Summing up the media’s conventional wisdom about the congressional vote to approve funding for the Iraq War with no timeline for withdrawal, the Los Angeles Times wrote (5/25/07): “Unable to overcome the president’s veto of their plan to set a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops, Democrats have been left to focus on what to do next.”

That, in a nutshell, is what was wrong with the coverage of the war funding debate. In fact, if the Democratic-controlled Congress wanted to force the Bush administration to accept a bill with a withdrawal timeline, it didn’t have to pass the bill over George W. Bush’s veto; it just had to make clear that no Iraq War spending bill without a timeline would be forthcoming. Given that the Constitution requires Congress to approve all spending, Bush needs Congress’s approval to continue the war—Congress does not need Bush’s approval to end the war.

Democrats may not have wanted to pay the supposed political costs of such a strategy, but news coverage should have made clear that this was a choice, not something forced on them by the lack of a veto-proof majority.

Unfortunately, some leading pundits instead gave deeply misleading, unhelpful summaries of how the American constitutional system works. Here’s New York Times columnist David Brooks on CNN’s Reliable Sources (5/27/07):

Listen, the Democrats were quite up-front saying, “We’re going to fund the troops at the end of the day. . . . If we have to cave in, we will cave in.” And the reason they caved in is because of the Constitution. The Constitution gives the president power to wage war and really to manage this thing. And the Democrats never really had a potential to reverse that.

Actually, the Constitution gives Congress the power “to raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.” The limit on the length of military appropriations was explained by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers (No. 24) as “a precaution which, upon a nearer view of it, will appear to be a great and real security against the keeping up of troops without evident necessity.” In Federalist No. 26, he elaborated:

The legislature of the United States will be OBLIGED, by this provision, once at least in every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot; to come to a new resolution on the point; and to declare their sense of the matter, by a formal vote in the face of their constituents.

Mark Shields, the “left” on PBS’s NewsHour (5/25/07), also assumed that the Democrats needed to overturn Bush’s veto to win: “The Democrats had a majority. They did not have enough votes to overturn. Without any change in the administration’s policy, the president was going to prevail in a showdown over funding troops.” But if the Democrats’ goal was to end the war, they could have “prevailed” simply by not passing any bill.

Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will was one of the few pundits who got it right (ABC’s This Week, 5/27/07), declaring himself to be in rare agreement with a prominent anti-war group: “MoveOn.org happens to be right. . . . They’re correct as a matter of constitutional fact, which is that the Democrats could stop the war if they chose. They choose not to.”