Congress Finally Finds Its Purse

For years there was debate on Capitol Hill over whether or not Congress could end a war by cutting off the funding. Despite the Constitution’s clarity, and the clarity of numerous precedents, Senator Russ Feingold was obliged to hold hearings to explain to his colleagues what the power of the purse is. That debate is over.

Those who pretended for years they didn’t have the power to cut off the dollar spigot have dropped the pretense. Now it’s purely about whether they have the will. The reason for this shift, of course, is that they are actually close to having the will.

On May 26th the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 416 to 5 an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act of 2012 sponsored by John Conyers and 17 other congress members that (if left in by the Senate) blocks the use of any funds in that act to put US troops or contractors on the ground in Libya.

Weaknesses of this move include:
1-The Senate is where all good things die; and the House tends to cave in to Senate demands.
2-The CIA already has its troops on the ground in Libya and they are funded through a different bill.
3-The State Department hires mercenaries and is funded by a different bill.
4-Other NATO nations have troops on the ground in Libya or could put them there.
5-The “Defense” Department’s budget for 2011, from which presumably this year’s estimated $1 billion for war in Libya is being taken, is still good for a few more months.
6-Presidents tend to veto, signing statement, secret memo, or simply violate laws these days, with Congress terrified of its other and ultimate power, impeachment.

Strengths, however, include:
1-The House has destroyed the pretense that it cannot defund a war.
2-The House has destroyed the pretense that it must completely defer to the military or the president on how to conduct a war.
3-The House has connected the war expenses to budgetary concerns in the same moment in which Obama appears likely to violate his commitment to a significant Afghanistan withdrawal in July, and the same moment in which the U.S. Conference of Mayors appears likely to pass a resolution urging the end of the wars for financial reasons.
4-Whether the House loses this struggle in the Senate or the White House, it can shift the playing field to one controlled purely by the House, either by raising impeachment or by refusing to pass supplemental spending bills for wars going forward.

On June 13th, the House passed another amendment, by a vote of 248-163. This amendment, introduced by Brad Sherman to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2012, stipulated that “none of the funds made available by this act may be used in contravention of the War Powers Act.” That same measure had been proposed for a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security on June 2nd and failed. So, the tide is turning. Of course, the President has now declared that the Libya War is not covered by the War Powers Act because it isn’t a war or hostilities, but only about 14 president-worshippers have been found nationwide who take that nonsense seriously. Even the New York Times’ editorial page admits the idea is ludicrous while urging the continuation of the war outside the law.

So, this amendment, if it clears the Senate, actually goes further than Conyers’. It blocks funding for ships and planes, drones and missiles, not just ground troops. However, it only blocks funds from this one bill which ought never to have been used for such purposes anyway.

Now, Congressman Dennis Kucinich is seeking to push this trend into real action. He has announced that he will introduce an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act of 2012 preventing the use of any funds from that act for the Libya War. If that amendment passes the House and Senate, Congress will have asserted its right to exist and to impact public policy, while reigning in an out-of-control executive, in a way not seen since Dick Nixon left town.

This contest may determine the future of US warmaking more than the also important question arising this month of whether Obama will withdraw a serious number of troops from Afghanistan. And this contest may be something of a last chance. If Congress folds on this one, there aren’t too many ledges left for it to grab as it plummets into irrelevance. And if Ohio Republicans have their way, Kucinich’s district will cease to exist in 2013, leaving Congress with a significant courage deficit. Now is a moment to speak up for the Constitution, representative government, peace, justice, fiscal responsibility, and the lives of Libyans not yet hit by Obama’s non-hostile missiles.

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