The Power of the Purse

Hey, don’t look at us, we’re just Congress: that was Senator Joe Biden’s take on Meet the Press Sunday when asked about stopping the surge and winding down the war.  As Senator Biden put it: “There’s not much I can do about it.  Not much anybody can do about it.  He’s commander in chief.”  A little later, Tim Russert asked him, “Why not cut off funding for the war?” and Biden replied “I’ve been there, Tim.  You can’t do it.”

Actually, you can, as Walter Pincus noted in the in the Washington Post in November

In 1969, Congress’s ruling Democrats began to offer amendments to funding bills – often approved with Republican votes – to limit President Richard M. Nixon’s military alternatives in Southeast Asia. Although the Hatfield-McGovern amendment to cut off money for the war was defeated in August 1970, it accelerated Nixon’s steps toward Vietnamization of the fighting. And three years later, with withdrawal of U.S. forces having begun, Congress voted to cut off all funding for “offensive” military action, sealing the deal.

Some 20 years later, Congress used similar tactics to end our nation-building excursion in Somalia.  A month after the Black Hawk Down incident, in the Defense Appropriations Act for FY1994, Congress used the power of the purse [.pdf] to “cut off funding after March 31, 1994, except for a limited number of military personnel to protect American diplomatic personnel and American citizens, unless further authorized by Congress.”

Of course, Congress is not about to start cutting off funding for the Iraq war anytime soon.  To the extent that the new Congress invokes the power of the purse over Iraq, it’s likely to pursue an intermediate strategy of attaching appropriations riders to the funding it authorizes, passing the funding, but barring troop increases, for instance.  What seems likely to happen with that strategy is that the president will take the money and ignore the strings.  Consider the signing statement Bush issued while signing the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2005, summarized here by the Boston Globe :

Dec. 23, 2004: [Congress] Forbids US troops in Colombia from participating in any combat against rebels, except in cases of self-defense. Caps the number of US troops allowed in Colombia at 800.

Bush’s signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces, so the executive branch will construe the law ”as advisory in nature.”

Thus, in the president’s view, Congress cannot prevent him from using American troops in a shooting war with Colombian drug traffickers, should he decide that’s a good idea.  His position is, in essence, shut up and pay, it’s my army and my call. 

Faced with that sort of intransigence, those members who want an end to the war in Iraq are probably going to have to demonstrate their willingness not to pay.  Of course, that strategy leaves one vulnerable to charges of undercutting the troops.  (“Supporting the troops” apparently entails extending their tours and sending more of them to die in an operation that just about no one thinks will work).  Clearly, sending the president a letter–as Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid just did–isn’t going to do it.  

Pressure on funding pushed Nixon out of Ahab mode on Vietnam.  It may be the only thing that can force this president to change direction in Iraq.