More than three decades ago, argument over the war in Indochina raged among the public and in Congress. Today, opinion polls show real popular dispute about the war in Iraq, but Congress shows no evidence of genuine debate, just some toothless carping.
In the early 1970s, I sat in the staff gallery of the Senate and listened as congressional leaders argued over the merits of bringing home the troops from the divisive war in Indochina. Senators from both parties broke away from the fabrications of the Johnson and Nixon administrations to oppose a war they deemed not in the national interest. They cauterized policies that sustained the calamity, while war advocates perceived endless lights at the end of the tunnel and an end to freedom if the country did not stay the course.
We hear the same rhetoric today, but in the past there was an important difference: then, the critics of the war did not just talk, they acted using the prerogatives the Constitution gave them as members of Congress to pursue their convictions in legislation. Their bills had teeth. Republican John Sherman Cooper, Ky., joined with Democrat Frank Church from Idaho, and liberals James McGovern, D-S.D., and Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., crafted separate amendments to annual defense spending bills to bring U.S. troops home by a date certain. The Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments became rallying points for the opposition to the war, and, if enacted, they would have forced an end to American involvement.
The sponsors of these bills paid real political prices for their actions. President Lyndon Johnson's promise that not a single bridge or road would be built in Idaho as long as Frank Church was its senator is legendary. In other cases, the punishment was more subtle but even more costly. It usually came in the form that my former boss, Jacob Javits, R-N.Y., paid for the crime of sponsoring the first war powers legislation immediately after Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia. Among Republicans who considered themselves national security stalwarts, for example John Tower, Tex., and Barry Goldwater, Ariz., Javits was not a team player. In his own party caucus, he and a few like-minded others were denied not just back slapping fellowship but, more importantly, membership in the insider's ring of party leadership and in the final analysis—for Javits and others like Clifford Case, N.J.—support in primary fights against more compliant party regulars.
Nonetheless, senators like Church and Javits persisted and ultimately prevailed. They paid the price, but they also made themselves historically valid figures and gave meaning to the term United States Senator.
Things are very different today.
From Wednesday, July 20, 2005, to Tuesday, July 26, the Senate debated the 2006 National Defense Authorization bill, the most appropriate legislative vehicle for amendments to impact the war. It is here that Congress performs its constitutional duty to authorize funding for defense and war policy to the extent it sees fit.
During the five business days the Senate considered the defense bill, senators introduced 288 amendments.
Major Democrats, such as presidential aspirants Hilary Clinton, N.Y., Evan Bayh, Ind., and Joe Biden, Del., together with the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, Mich., parliamentary leaders Harry Reid, Nev., and Dick Durbin, Ill., and stalwarts Robert Byrd, W.Va., and Ted Kennedy, Mass., introduced almost 50 amendments.
A fulsome harking back to the Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments? Perhaps even a real bell ringer like Javits' prototype of the War Powers Act? Think again.
Clinton's amendments did things like award shiny new medals to Cold War veterans and express the "sense of the Senate" about female soldiers in combat. Bayh wanted to improve military housing, and Biden to address military vaccinations. Other Democratic amendments addressed military burials (Reid), university research (Kennedy), and Scott Air Force Base, Ill. (Durbin).
They also had amendments that addressed war related subjects, including the treatment of enemy prisoners (Levin), U.S. strategy against terror (Reid), and profiteering in Iraq and Afghanistan (Byrd). However, these merely called for reports, expressed the Senate's sentiment, or established a commission to study the subject; as law, they were toothless.
Still other amendments did at least have real legislative bite, requiring the president to take specific action, but they were not related to the war. Levin sought to transfer less than one percent of the Pentagon's funding for missile defense to non-proliferation, and Kennedy sought to end development of a new nuclear weapon.
Not all of the Democrat's amendments were irrelevant to the war and toothless; Durbin had one on the important but still secondary subject of American torture of enemy prisoners. However, Durbin's was not brought to a vote. Neither were any of the other meaningless ones; most were not even debated.
Republicans had amendments. Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tenn., swept in to secure Pentagon support for the Boy Scouts. This fluff was debated and adopted by a rousing vote of 98-0. More conscious of the meaning of the term leader, Senators John McCain, Ariz., Lindsey Graham, S.C., and John Warner, Va., introduced amendments to impede torture by Americans, but, like the Democrats, these senators failed to bring their measures to a vote.
The bipartisan timidity was heartily encouraged by President Bush, who promised to veto any bill with amendments that impeded his war policy, including—apparently—the freedom to abuse enemy prisoners. It seems that the senators of both parties believe a toothless bill enacted into law is a better signal to voters that Congress is doing its work than a controversial bill that embodies what they claim are their convictions.
This sad tale does end with a ray of hope. Majority Leader Frist aborted further consideration of the defense bill, saying the Senate might resume on it this fall. The lame performance of the Senate's ostensible Democratic leaders and self-styled maverick Republicans could, in theory, sublimate to a real debate on the war complete with legislative action. Indeed, Democrat Robert Feingold, Wisc., has recently advocated US withdrawal from Iraq by December 2006, and Republican Chuck Hagel, Neb., has sharpened his rhetoric critical of Vice President Richard Cheney's vision of more lights in the tunnel. Neither, however, has said he intends to convert his words into legislative action, let alone cooperate with the other for a bipartisan effort.
Feingold's and Hagel's introducing and forcing a vote on any meaningful amendment would be extremely problematic for today's Senate. It would show how empty is the rhetoric of Bush's war critics who have no alternatives to propose, and it would require both Republicans and Democrats who present themselves as leaders, even presidential timber, to employ the tools the Constitution gives them to alter policy they carp about. Indeed, it would require them to behave in a manner harking back to the past when the term "senator" seemed to mean something more.
There is hope, but not expectation.
This article first appeared in the Sept. 29 edition of Counterpunch.