Wednesday, June 20, 2007

This Price Isn't Right

There can be few things worse in political life than to fail to fulfill the expectations of the public that voted for a candidate who campaigned specifically to represent the community’s views in parliament or congress.

Yet that seems to be what is unfolding in the 110th Congress. The unambiguous message of last November’s midterm election was to get U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and end the “war on terror.” While it is true that the Senate Democrats have a razor-thin majority – a shift in party or caucus affiliation by a single senator would throw majority control to the Republicans (the 50-50 tie would be broken by the Republican vice-president in his constitutional role as President of the Senate) – leaders of both parties have yet to implement the electorate’s charge: pass significant legislation that will:

- bring the war in Iraq to an end;

- bring the war in Afghanistan to a close;

- disband the “global war on terror”; and

- redirect resources to combat terrorism to international and national police forces.

Two attempts to move legislation – one a binding resolution calling for a date certain for withdrawing troops from Iraq, the other a non-binding resolution laying out specific timelines to be met by the Iraqi government – failed. However, the provision on timelines, part of the original 2007 Fiscal Year Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill, was the first such measure to reach President Bush’s desk – prompting the first veto of his presidency. (The provision was not part of the revised legislation that Bush subsequently signed.)

The next attempt to implement the people’s direction will be the Defense Authorization bill. Although the details remain unclear, leaders from both parties appear to be in the final stages of reaching agreement on the number of amendments that will be brought up for consideration by the whole Senate. The Senate plan for moving this legislation is to debate and vote on amendments before the July Fourth recess and vote on the entire bill and send it to the President for signature or veto during the three weeks the Congress is in session during July.

But as fatalities continue to climb and more billions disappear every week, the American public is growing impatient for meaningful action. There is growing suspicion that a majority if not a supermajority in Congress is more interested in playing the politics of this war than in dealing with its policy dimensions. Many in the U.S. public think that if Congress were really committed to ending the war, they would vote for amendments repealing the original authorization to go to war. This would not cut funding, but it would represent a serious and significant symbolic statement to the White House that the Congress, at least, recognizes that the public wants this war to end – and soon.

President Bush may sign the Authorization bill as it would provide “political cover” for the White House to step up pressure on the Iraqi government to meet the benchmarks to which Baghdad has agreed. The real fight will come over the Defense Appropriations legislation.

This year, in accordance with congressional direction in the FY2007 appropriations legislation, the president included war funding ($142 billion) in the overall request for the Pentagon for FY2008. It now appears that the Iraq funding request will be considered as a stand-alone bill in September while the rest of the president’s request for the Pentagon will be examined in July and may possibly even be passed before the August recess. The amendment policy on this bill also remains unclear, but expect only minor changes as Members remain very wary about casting a negative vote on any bill dealing with defense spending lest they leave themselves open to charges of failing to support the troops.

And it is exactly at this point that politics trumps policy and re-election prospects subvert principle. Members have fallen for administration blackmail: a vote against funding the war sends a debilitating message of “no-confidence” in the war and in those waging war on behalf of the nation, thus devaluing their sacrifices. The reality is that as long as the wars are funded, which is to say as long as politics trumps policy, the sacrifices will continue and will continue to fall directly on only a few – the wounded (physical and mental), the dead, their families and friends.

To gauge just how serious this Congress is about doing the people’s will to end the war, count back from the November 2008 presidential election to July 1st, 2007 – less than 10 days from now – and slot in the legislative actions related to the ongoing war as well as other significant war-related events

July 2007 FY2008 Defense Authorization passes

August 2007 Recess

September FY2008 war spending passes; report on “surge” sent to

Sep-Oct 2007 2008 Defense Appropriations (less war funding) passes

Nov-Dec 2007 Recess; progress report for third quarter 2007 sent to

January 2008 State of the Union; rotation of troops with extension of
surge levels announced and a “possible” drawdown timeline
to begin in summer

February 2008 President submits FY2009 budget with additional funds for
war fighting still above $100 billion

The submission of the FY2009 defense budget will confirm that the next president will enter office with a significant U.S. military presence still in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Feb-Mar 2008 Progress report for last quarter of 2007 sent to Congress

Politically, the Republicans will look for some reduction in troop levels – possibly as many as 50,000 – to begin in the summer and be completed by the end of October 2008. They will cite recent (April-May) “testimony” by field commanders that improved Iraqi security forces make possible the proposed decrease in U.S. troops – that is, the reduction is policy-driven, not political.

The Democrats will dispute this latter claim but will be content to follow the same timing for the FY2009 defense authorization and appropriations bills as they did for FY2008. Politically, the Democrats would be just as content to go into the last two months before the election with the wars continuing at full tilt.

Sixteen months remain until the next general election. It would be unconscionable for the Congress to fail to effect a policy change on Iraq in this period of time. Should Congress fail to move ahead or follow the lackluster schedule outlined above, the nation can expect at least another 1,000 U.S. fatalities in Iraq (based on the totals for the past 16 months) and additional direct monetary costs just for Iraq coming to $100 billion. And to these must be added the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and security forces and the costs to coalition countries.

This is too high a price to pay in anyone’s blood and anyone’s treasure, especially when the only brake on changing a bankrupt policy is political gamesmanship.

If this is the level to which our system has deteriorated, we might as well elect people like Bob Barker, the just retired 35 year host of television’s “The Price is Right” He might appreciate a new day job.


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