Congressman David Obey (D., Wis.) is the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He's in charge of spending our money. And until this week, he has always maintained that spending hundreds of billions of our dollars on wars was something he just had no choice about. Two years ago, 183,000 people watched this Youtube video, which was also shown on tv news shows, of Obey screaming at a military mother and denouncing "idiot liberals" for suggesting that Congress use the power of the purse to end wars. Liberals debated other liberals on the question of whether we really were idiots. Now Obey has taken a step in the direction of joining us.
On Tuesday, the leaders of the two parties went to the president and told him that he could continue or escalate wars, or not, that the matter was entirely (albeit unconstitutionally) up to him. But Obey has released a statement suggesting otherwise. After all these years of professed helplessness, Obey is now speaking as if he recognizes the power of Congress to fund or defund wars. Obey expressed his view on how to proceed in Afghanistan:
"[W]e need to more narrowly focus our efforts and have a much more achievable and targeted policy in that region, or we run the risk of repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam and the Russians made in Afghanistan. There are some fundamental questions that I would ask of those who are suggesting that we follow a long term counterinsurgency strategy."
And then Obey begins his first question with the key phrase: "As an Appropriator"."
"As an Appropriator I must ask, what will that policy cost and how will we pay for it? We are now in the middle of a fundamental debate over reforming our healthcare system. The President has indicated that it must cost less than $900 billion over ten years and be fully paid for. The Congressional Budget Office has had four committees twisting themselves into knots in order to fit healthcare reform into that limit. CBO is earnestly measuring the cost of each competing healthcare plan. Shouldn't it be asked to do the same thing with respect to Afghanistan? If we add 40,000 troops and recognize the need for a sustained 10 year or longer commitment, as the architects of this plan tell us we do, the military costs alone would be over $800 billion. And unlike the demands that are being made of the healthcare alternatives that they be deficit neutral, we've heard no such demand with respect to Afghanistan. I would ask how much will this entire effort cost, when you add in civilian costs and costs in Pakistan? And how would that impact the budget?"
Obey is not just finally offering the same commonsense opinion that the rest of us have been promoting for several years. He's indicating that "as an Appropriator" (his capitalization) he may just possibly be willing to withhold funding. Twenty-two of his colleagues introduced a bill last Thursday (H.R. 3699) that would block any funding of an escalation in Afghanistan. But they need to find 196 more votes. Obey, as chair of the committee through which funding bills must pass, need only find his own backbone. In June, 30 Democrats and a handful of Republicans were willing to vote against war funding in a "supplemental" bill. This Thursday, the House passed a "defense" bill, which included $128 billion explicitly for wars, and while 131 Republicans and 15 Democrats voted no, at most a handful of no votes were cast in opposition to the war funding. Obey, of course, voted yes. But more money will be needed, and will be needed sooner if there is to be an escalation. And no funding has yet been appropriated for an escalation. The American public is opposed, and the Constitution requires that Congress make this decision. We just may see David Obey join the side of the public and our Constitution this time around.
Throughout the 110th Congress (2007-2008) a myth was spread very successfully by the Congress and the media that Congress could only end the occupation of Iraq (or Afghanistan) by passing a bill. This would have required the support of 67 senators to override a veto, and 60 senators just to invoke cloture and break a Republican filibuster. But this was a stalling tactic. It simply was not true that Congress had to pass a bill at all. In order to end the legal funding of the occupation, Congress simply had to stop passing bills to fund it. The Democrats had a large majority in the House and a narrow one in the Senate. But if your goal is stopping a bill, rather than passing one, you only have to succeed in one house or the other.
It is possible for a majority of members of the House to force a bill to the floor over the wishes of the Speaker. To do this, 218 Congress members would have had to take the highly unusual step of signing a discharge petition. Even if a lot of Republicans had done that, it is highly unlikely that many Democrats would have opposed their party leadership and the will of the public to force a funding bill to the floor for a very unpopular war. Pelosi persuaded a lot of Democrats to vote for the war and could have used the same techniques to persuade a smaller number not to oppose her effort to end it, had she wanted to end it. And she still could.
Any proposal to fund the war in the Senate that might have been brought by Republicans or pro-war Democrats could have been blocked by 41 senators, and the Democrats had 51, now 59, soon 60. While not all bills can be filibustered (appropriations bills can be, budget reconciliation bills cannot), you can hardly claim you need 60 votes to get past a filibuster without admitting that with only forty-one you could launch your own filibuster, and that with fifty-one you could defeat any bill at all. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid alone could have refused to bring a bill to the floor, and any other senator could have put a secret hold on a bill, and still could.
What's more, the Democrats could have brought to the floor of both houses, as many times as necessary, bills to fund only a withdrawal of troops and nothing else. Of course, this would have been comical, given that the cost of withdrawing all troops and equipment from Iraq (or Afghanistan) is pocket change to our bloated Pentagon. But it would have headed off the nonsensical attacks in the media that would have claimed that defunding a war was somehow an attack on the men and women sent to risk their lives in it. And this strategy would have made efforts to pass war funding over the heads of the leadership even less likely to gain traction.
Not only did millions of Americans, organized by United for Peace and Justice, Progressive Democrats of America, and many other groups, including those in the After Downing Street Coalition, lobby Congress to fund only withdrawal, but Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced a bill and attempted to introduce an amendment to accomplish just that. At one point, ninety-one members of Congress signed onto a letter from the Progressive Caucus committing them to voting only to fund withdrawal. (Most of them went back on their word). And, of course, Congressman Dennis Kucinich -- a lone voice for peace in the wilderness -- constantly hammered home the point that Congress simply had to refrain from bringing up a bill at all.
Congress has acted successfully in this manner before. The Vietnam War was de-funded by Congress (albeit after most troops were home). In 1970, Congress banned the use of funds to put US troops in Cambodia or to advise the Cambodian military. Then in 1973 Congress set a date to cut off funds for combat activities in all of Southeast Asia. Congress had cut off the funding for the Contras in Nicaragua, and Reagan had secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran and given the money to the Contras, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal during which Democrats carefully avoided impeachment in order to "focus on the elections" that they proceeded to lose, thus handing us the Bush dynasty. In 1994 Congress set a date to cut off funding for military operations in Somalia. In 1998 Congress set a date to cut off funding for military operations in Bosnia.
In January 2007, as the 110th Congress was just beginning, Senator Russ Feingold sought to remind his colleagues of all of this, chairing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Exercising Congress's constitutional Power to End a War." Feingold said,
"The Constitution gives Congress the explicit power '[to] declare War,' '[t]o raise and support Armies,' '[t]o provide and maintain a Navy,' and '[t]o make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.' In addition, under Article I, 'No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.' These are direct quotes from the Constitution of the United States. Yet to hear some in the Administration talk, it is as if these provisions were written in invisible ink. They were not. These powers are a clear and direct statement from the founders of our republic that Congress has authority to declare, to define, and ultimately, to end a war. Our founders wisely kept the power to fund a war separate from the power to conduct a war. In their brilliant design of our system of government, Congress got the power of the purse, and the President got the power of the sword. As James Madison wrote, 'Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges, whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded.'"
The rest of the Senate and most of the House were not listening. I don't mean they disagreed. I mean they literally were not paying any attention. In October 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was interviewed on the Ed Schultz radio program. Schultz asked Reid why he didn't just stop funding the war, and I got the impression that Reid had never seriously considered the idea:
SCHULTZ: But Senator, don't you have the power to say you're not going to get the money even without 60 votes?
REID: Sure we have the power on anything to stop the money, that's what it's all about, that's why we have three separate branches of government. But the thing we have to do is make sure we do it the right way. It's not a question of all or nothing, it's a question of making sure we do the right thing. What Feingold and I have pushed and we're going to continue to do that . . . get all the troops to start redeploying immediately, get all the troops out of there by June except those needed for counterterrorism, protecting our assets we have there, and a limited force for training Iraqis. That's what Feingold and I believe should happen, we're going to continue to push that. The majority of the Democrats support it, but not all the Democrats.
SCHULTZ: But you could say we're not bringing this to the floor, the funding's over, correct?
REID: [very slowly, as if never having considered doing such a thing]: Yes, we could do that, yes.
SCHULTZ: Why don't you do that? The American people want you to do that.
REID: Ed, it's a situation where we have to do what is right . . . I say that Feingold and Reid are right. We say there should be immediate redeployment, set a deadline that everybody should be out except a limited number. That means they're gonna have to have some money . . . the troops there fighting counterterrorism, which we need, that is going to be some money, we have to do that.