Readings — From the June 2013 issue

Congressional Abdication

By Jim Webb, from the March/April issue of The National Interest. Webb, a Virginia Democrat, served in the U.S. Senate from 2007 to 2013.

In matters of foreign policy, Congress, and especially the Senate, was designed as a hedge against the abuses exhibited by European monarchs who for centuries had whimsically entangled their countries in misguided adventures. The Constitution would prevent the overreach of a president tempted to risk our country’s blood, treasure, and international prestige. Congress was given the power to declare war and appropriate funds. The commander in chief would execute policies within the boundaries of legislative powers and in some cases would be required to obtain the “Advice and Consent” of two thirds of the Senate. Congress, not the president, would “raise and support Armies,” with the Constitution limiting appropriations for such armies to durations of no more than two years. This was a clear signal that in our new country there would be no standing army to be sent off to war at the whim of a pseudomonarch. The United States would not engage in unchecked, perpetual military campaigns.

Practical circumstances have changed, but basic philosophical principles should not. The growth of the military–industrial complex and the development of new national-security policies after the Cold War contributed to a mammoth defense structure and an atrophied role for Congress, yet perhaps the greatest decrease in congressional control occurred after September 11, 2001. Powers quickly shifted to the presidency as a traumatized nation called for quick, decisive action. It was considered politically dangerous and even unpatriotic to question this shift or the judgment of military leaders, many of whom were untested and almost all of whom continually asked for more troops, more money, and more authority. Members of Congress fell over themselves to prove they were behind the troops and behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of billions of dollars were voted for in a series of barely examined “emergency” supplemental appropriations. Party loyalties became so strong that we often seemed to be mimicking the British parliamentary system, with members of Congress lining up behind the president as if he were a prime minister — first among Republicans, with George W. Bush, and then among Democrats, with Barack Obama.

This is not the same Congress that eventually asserted itself in the debate over the war in Vietnam when I was serving there as a Marine infantry officer. It is not the Congress in which I served as a full committee counsel during the Carter Administration. It is not the Congress, fiercely protective of its powers, that I dealt with regularly during the four years I spent as an assistant secretary of defense and as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. As in so many other cases when powers disappear through erosion rather than revolution, many members of Congress do not appreciate the power that they actually hold, while others have no objection to the ever-expanding authority of the presidency. During my time in the Senate as a member of both the Armed Services and the Foreign Relations Committees, I repeatedly raised concerns about the growing assertion of executive power by the Bush and Obama Administrations, as well as about the lack of full accountability in the Department of Defense. These issues remain and still call for resolution.

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