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On Oversight and Iraq, Congress Finally Asserts Itself

The Iraq War is the topic of the day, the week, the month, the year. But before I get to it, I need to repeat a mantra that I will continue to chant: It’s the oversight, stupid. [IMGCAP(1)]

Take the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It is clear that the problems of care for wounded veterans have been festering for more than three years and have been much greater for reservists and members of the National Guard. The lack of concern by the military brass has been matched by indifference elsewhere in the Pentagon.

It reminds one of Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) brilliant riposte about some pro-life conservatives, who think life begins at conception and ends at birth: Some who “support our troops” do so when soldiers enlist and get sent into harm’s way, but once they are there without adequate armor or equipment, and when they come home with head injuries or lacking limbs, they are on their own.

We can and should blame the generals and administration officials who turned a blind eye to these problems. But we also should blame the past two Congresses for a total lack of oversight in this area. I hate to criticize Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who has been an excellent lawmaker and was a strong bipartisan who did not sell his office when he chaired the Appropriations Committee. Young, to his everlasting credit, made regular trips to visit the wounded at Walter Reed. But the story in The Washington Post last week that said he and his wife were appalled by the conditions there, mentioned the problems to officials and were ignored — leading the Youngs to give up in despair — left one large unanswered question: Why didn’t Bill Young raise holy hell on the committee that has the Pentagon by its short hairs via its budget?

One hearing to blast the conditions at Walter Reed, especially if it were accompanied by press coverage, would have grabbed the attention of every official who matters at the Defense Department. Good oversight would have uncovered the problems that flowed from a rash move to privatize many of the services at Walter Reed and perhaps at other veterans’ facilities. But we know the attitude of Republican Congressional leaders during the Bush presidency had been to avoid embarrassment to “the team” at all costs. Now we know how high some of those costs happened to be.

Now let’s turn to intelligence oversight. The 9/11 commission, whose recommendations are in the hands of the Senate, made a top priority of creating a robust process of oversight of the intelligence community. One way is a separate Appropriations subcommittee on intelligence. Another is to find a more creative, hybrid solution as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) did in the House.

The point is less in the specifics of the structure and more in the recognition that structural change is needed to make the appropriations process — also the lifeblood of the intelligence community — an effective weapon to create meaningful oversight of a process that has lacked it for years. The Senate clearly needs to step up to the plate on this one, especially as we get more evidence daily of serious gaps in our intelligence collection and interpretation. The failure to act would be another sign of a continuing broken branch.

On to the war. We now have a commission trying to sort out the war powers held by the legislative branch and the president, as Congress itself grapples with how to exercise whatever power it has. Why do we need a commission after more than 200 years of experience dealing with the most fundamental power government possesses? Because even in this area, the late scholar Edwin Corwin had it right when he described the separation of powers as “an invitation to struggle.”

Each branch has core constitutional powers — at the top of the list, Congress has the power of the purse and the power to declare war, while the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. But what happens when those core powers are directly at loggerheads — when the irresistible force meets the immovable object? When the branches confront one another, it is not simply a question of the Constitution; it turns on political circumstances, public opinion, leadership drive and skills, and other factors.

This set of knotty questions has a lot to do with the Democrats’ dithering, tentativeness and uncertainty over the past two months. They want to follow what they see as a mandate in the election, and a continuing mandate from the electorate, to get out of Iraq as soon as possible. They want to find a way both to express disapproval over the surge and to derail it as a policy. But doing so in more than a symbolic way is not easy. It is not easy constitutionally — using the funding weapon to alter war policy on the ground is an unconstitutional infringement on the commander in chief. Even using the declaration of war power to reverse the functional equivalent of a declaration is highly questionable — once a war is under way, the onus and the power shift considerably.

Then we get to the real nut-cutting part — shutting off the funds completely and ending the war. Vice President Cheney, on Wolf Blitzer’s show after the State of the Union address, basically dared Congress to “bring it on.” He knew that Congress would blink, fearful that such an approach could put our forces into vulnerable settings, be seen by the public — even a good share of the anti-war public — as undermining the troops, and cost them disastrously in electoral standing.

Congress is now grappling for a third way, and the approach outlined by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) — to set benchmarks based on those pledged by the White House and the Iraqi government and use the power of the purse to enforce them, but with presidential waivers allowed to avoid infringing on presidential war-making power — is probably the best way to go.

In practical terms, Congress cannot stop a war in its tracks itself. But it can create the conditions that make its stoppage more likely, transforming the terms of debate and putting the onus on the president to explain why his own terms should now be ignored. This may not satisfy the anti-war left, but it is all Congress can do.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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