This week, Peter Beinart made a very good point: At precisely the moment when the 2016 GOP presidential candidates are escalating their criticism of President Obama’s strategy against ISIS, Congressional Republicans appear less and less inclined to hold an actual vote putting their own stamp on the war effort.
To be clear, this is a bipartisan failing. It has been about nine months since the U.S. started bombing ISIS, and Congress has held no full vote to authorize the war. While GOP leaders have shown no serious interest in a vote, many Democrats — with some notable exceptions, like Senator Tim Kaine and Rep. Adam Schiff — have also been conspicuously quiet on the subject.
Now things could get even worse: It looks as if GOP Senator Bob Corker — the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a onetime proponent of exercising Congressional oversight over the war — may be slamming the door shut on the possibility of any vote.
In an interview with Politico, Corker dismissively called the prospect of a vote authorizing the war an “intellectual exercise”:
If there’s a narrow window of hope for Capitol Hill to reassure thousands of troops stationed overseas that both political parties endorse a nine-month-old air war, it’s with Corker, the deal-cutting chairman. But the fall of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria to Islamic militants, and dozens of subsequent airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is doing little to move him.
Asked if he feels more pressure to take the plunge on a divisive war debate after the troubling gains by ISIL in the region, Corker was quick with a reply: “Nah, none. Because the authorization will have zero effect on what’s going on on the ground. Zero effect.”…
“Burning up legislative time, burning up capital, burning up goodwill on something that you know is purely an intellectual exercise when there’s so many pressing matters? Maybe that’s not so prudent,” Corker said. “Whether Congress passes an AUMF or does not pass an AUMF, it’s not going to affect an iota of activities on the ground.”
Oh well. The idea seems to be that the differences between Republicans and Democrats over the details of a war authorization are so vast that it is no longer worth the troule, because it won’t change the situation against ISIL. Democrats quoted in the article sounded similar tones.
The background: Six months after the bombing began, Obama finally sent a war authorization request to Capitol Hill, but many Democrats and liberals — your humble blogger included — thought it was far too broad. It failed to place clear enough limits on his war-making authority in a number of ways, and didn’t repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which authorized action against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. (Obama had invoked that AUMF to initially justify the campaign against ISIS, a move that seemed ludicrous. But he has since said he is open to repealing it. However, until that happens, it could be invoked by him no matter what limitations Congress passes, and could even be employed by the next president).
At the same time, though, many Republicans thought Obama’s request was too limiting, suggesting how hard it would be to craft an authorization that might pass Congress.
Now Corker appears to be saying that doing all that hard work would consume too much political capital to be worth it. This is too bad. For one thing, Congress very recently did exercise more oversight over foreign policy, creating a framework for voting on a final Iran deal. That was shepherded largely by Corker. It was already ludicrous that Congress was voting to exercise oversight over diplomacy with Iran that hadn’t run its course — while declining to exercise oversight over a war already underway for months. Now, however, Congress is done creating its oversight over the Iran deal. Why not vote on ISIS?
Indeed, Corker, who has previously sounded very gung-ho for Congressional oversight, recently hinted that a vote on the war would follow a vote over Iran. (This may not be over yet, by the way: Politico reports that Senator Kaine, for one, is circulating new AUMF drafts that could still prompt some kind of Congressional activity.)
To be clear, I’m sympathetic to Corker’s current suggestion that a vote now might not make much of a difference. As I’ve noted, the combination of Obama seeking authorization way too late, and Congress dithering for months without putting its stamp on the war, already ensured this would be the latest chapter in a decades-long weakening of Congressional oversight responsibility over foreign policy.
But even now, a Congressional debate on the war might be useful. Congress shouldn’t abdicate its Constitutional responsibility here. It could also be helpful in the context of the presidential race. GOP presidential candidates like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have said Congress should vote on the war. Paul wants to limit Obama’s authority; by contrast, Marco Rubio wants to broaden it, saying it should read: “We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL. Period.” Let’s hear these guys hash out specifics! It would also be nice to hear what Hillary Clinton — who is regarded as overly hawkish by some rank-and-file Dems due to the Iraq War — has to say on the proper limits on war-making authority in the current context.
Come on, Congress, vote on the war already!