This is what it’s like inside a vacuum:
A half-dozen members of Congress and perhaps twice as many staffers sit, quietly, on the floor of the House. Two reporters sit in the press gallery, and a few dozen tourists, mostly in shorts and T-shirts, fidget in the public gallery. Every few minutes, a police radio is heard as the gallery doors open and a new batch of tourists is admitted.
And in the well of the House, a steady stream of lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives — come to the microphones to lament the utter inability of Congress to do its job:
“One of the great failures.”
And then the whole House votes 288 to 139 to continue to do absolutely nothing.
Ten months ago, American forces began air combat operations over Iraq and Syria that continue today.
Four months ago, President Obama sent Congress a proposed “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” for the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — consistent with earlier demands by the House that the president seek just such an authorization.
But nothing happened — until Wednesday, when a quixotic band of lawmakers led by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) used a provision in the War Powers Resolution to force a debate and a vote on the House floor on military action in Syria in Iraq. Their proposal — a withdrawal from the region — was acknowledged by supporters to be a “blunt instrument,” but they figured that they could use the threat of an artificial deadline for a withdrawal to force their colleagues in the House to take action on passing a use-of-force authorization.
“Only Congress has the ability to declare war,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said in Wednesday’s debate, “and so this blunt instrument is ultimately about backing up the bluntness of the Constitution.” Sanford told his colleagues that “this is something that Democrats and Republicans ought to equally care about. . . . This is something Republicans absolutely ought to care about.”
Another Republican, Rep. Tom Massie (Ky.), reminded colleagues that the Constitution left the “question of war and peace to the legislature and not to the executive.” Massie said that “this is a tactic, a parliamentary tactic that’s necessary to force the debate, and let’s have the debate.”
His colleagues decided against having that debate. Only 19 Republicans supported the resolution, compared with 222 who swallowed their usual objections about the president’s usurpation of legislative authority and invited him to keep on usurping. Democrats were less permissive toward Obama, with 120 voting for withdrawal and 66 against. Those votes to force a pullout represent the second House Democratic rebuke of Obama in as many weeks, following Friday’s surprise rejection of trade legislation.
The result was to keep in place a status quo that pretty much nobody likes: a president who acknowledges “we don’t yet have a complete strategy” to defeat the Islamic State waging war based on a 14-year-old authorization resolution passed for other purposes, and a weak House speaker, John Boehner, who has postponed any sort of war authorization for the past year because of difficulty lining up the votes.
Yet even most of those who spoke against the withdrawal resolution acknowledged that lawmakers were shirking their constitutional duties and needed to do something about it.
“I don’t disagree that the current state of the legal authorities the president is using against ISIS is less than ideal from our Constitution’s perspective,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, admitted, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group.
“Congress has had months to consider the president’s language, and it’s well past time we act,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the committee’s ranking Democrat.
Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) lamented a “pattern of Congress abrogating one of its most fundamental constitutional roles” but said he “cannot endorse the tactic of this measure.”
Why not? Certainly, it would be reckless to pull out of Syria and Iraq quickly, if at all; what’s needed there is a stronger effort. But nothing else so far has managed to get the House (or the Senate, for that matter) to fulfill its warmaking responsibilities.
“I see the courage and sacrifice of our uniformed men and women,” McGovern admonished his colleagues, “but I see nothing but cowardice from this leadership in this House.”
It won’t be easy to pass a use-of-force resolution. Many Democrats thought Obama’s request too broad, and many Republicans thought it too narrow. But that’s no excuse for inaction. Royce pronounced himself “deeply concerned” about Obama’s “weak” response to the Islamic State, and he complained that Obama “short-circuited this debate by claiming complete authority under prior statutes to use our armed forces.”
But if Royce and his colleagues are really concerned, they have a ready solution: They can do their jobs.