October 3, 2003
Congress, administration test limits of rocky relationship
By Kirk Victor,National Journal
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., has had enough. Never one to pull his punches, the former Army sergeant who served courageously in Vietnam is angered by the Bush administration's often-dismissive attitude toward Congress on issues of foreign policy and national security.
Hagel's unhappiness exploded to the surface during a mid-September interview with National Journal, when he was asked about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's warning that harsh domestic criticism of U.S. policy in Iraq might embolden terrorists. "I find that offensive," Hagel snapped. "I heard that same argument in Vietnam for 11 years: 'Don't dare question. Don't dare probe.' My goodness, we would be abdicating our responsibility to the American public if we didn't question and probe policy."
But Hagel didn't stop there. "If that is the way [administration officials] feel, they should review what happened in Vietnam, and they should review history and review the Constitution," he said. "Article I of the Constitution is [on] the legislative branch—not the executive branch. We are coequal branches of government. We have coequal responsibilities."
That Rumsfeld provokes such strong reactions on Capitol Hill does not surprise Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who also served heroically in Vietnam. "There is a perception here that sometimes Secretary Rumsfeld does not have the highest regard for the Congress and the role that it plays," McCain said in an interview.
But the testiness between Congress and the White House goes beyond personal antagonisms. In recent months, lawmakers have blasted administration officials for failing to consult Congress before sending troops into Liberia and for not being honest about the costs of the Iraq war and its aftermath. In fact, members of Congress have complained about the administration's general unwillingness to share much information at all involving national security issues.
Even senior Republican lawmakers not known for making waves, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have occasionally been put off by the administration's imperious attitude toward Congress.
Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence, said that he had, "for a long time, long before we ever went into Iraq, encouraged senior members of the administration to make the Congress their partner in this Iraqi effort [by telling them]: 'Don't push us back; don't push us away; don't treat us like an appendage or a nuisance.' There were many, many times they did that."
That back-of-the-hand treatment is by design, according to some observers, who invariably point to Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney as determined to rectify a loss in executive branch powers dating to the Vietnam War.
Back then, Sen. J. William Fulbright Jr., D-Ark., the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an acerbic critic of the Vietnam War, made Congress such a force that it was a factor in President Johnson's decision not to seek re-election in 1968. Also, the passage of the 1973 War Powers Act curbed the president's powers to pursue certain military actions without congressional approval—a measure that has nettled presidents ever since.
"There is a real sense among senior administration officials that they have a solemn obligation to reclaim lost territory, that Congress has overstepped its bounds," said James M. Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "When they talk about reversing the impact of Vietnam, which Rumsfeld has alluded to on a number of occasions, they are not simply talking about re-establishing American power abroad. They are talking about re-establishing presidential power here at home."
But such efforts to reclaim power for the chief executive are now encountering increased resistance on Capitol Hill. Democratic and Republican lawmakers are becoming more aggressive, by employing tough rhetoric on Iraq and asking sharp questions about U.S. foreign policy, all at an inopportune time for the administration. On Sept. 7, President Bush announced he is seeking an additional $87 billion from Congress for the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration's supplemental funding request has provided an opening for lawmakers to vent.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a moderate who often works closely with Republicans and who supported the Iraq war, let Rumsfeld have it at a Sept. 24 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the funding request. She was unimpressed when the Defense chief enumerated the many briefings and hearings that he and other top officials have attended on Capitol Hill over the past year to keep Congress apprised of developments.
"The briefings go on... but we could be anybody in those briefings, not United States senators.... It doesn't matter what we think," Feinstein said. "There's a feeling that you know it all. The administration knows it all, and nobody else knows anything. And therefore, we're here just to say, 'Yes sir. How high do we jump?' And at some point, we refuse to jump."
Some who follow Congress closely agree that the Bush administration has been disdainful toward the legislative branch in matters of defense and foreign policy. "It is simply a fact that the president has thinly veiled contempt for the Congress," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The vice president has the same. The secretary of Defense has the same. Basically, members of Congress have been dissed badly by this administration."
Until recently, lawmakers seemed quite content to play a secondary role, especially on national security issues. Last October, by overwhelmingly approving a resolution that many commentators viewed as giving the executive branch carte blanche to wage war against Iraq, Congress all but took itself out of the biggest debate facing the country.
Congress, after all, had been eclipsed by a strong president following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush's sky-high popularity reinforced that subordinate position. With the GOP controlling the House, the Senate, and the White House, lawmakers had little incentive to make waves, as long as things were going well.
McCain, when asked if Congress was indeed relegated to the sidelines following last year's passage of the Iraq use-of-force resolution, replied: "To a very large extent, yes, and it is more Congress's fault than anybody else's.
[Opponents of the war] could have extended the debate; they could have said, 'Hey, let's discuss this closer to the actual onset of hostilities.' But you also have a very popular president, with the events of 9/11 overhanging everything."
In the past few months, however, the tone has shifted. Warner, who usually is a cheerleader for Bush's national security policy, sharply rebuked the administration this summer for preparing to send marines into Liberia without properly consulting Congress. And Lugar started airing his view that the Pentagon should be replaced as the lead agency in the reconstruction phase of the Iraq mission.
Then, during the August congressional recess, many lawmakers got an earful from constituents over the growing number of U.S. casualties and the escalating costs of the Iraq mission, and over the weak U.S. economy. Those factors have contributed to Bush's plummeting poll numbers recently, and have led some members of Congress to be more assertive, at least rhetorically.
The president has been forced to lobby in this inhospitable environment in order to tap Congress's power of the purse. To win approval for the $87 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill, top administration officials suddenly have seemed solicitous of lawmakers' views—an about-face that has impressed even Hagel.
"We've had calls being made over the last [few] weeks from [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice and others, that have never really taken place at this accelerated rate," Hagel said. "You have more reaching out, more effort being made from the White House, through Defense and State, to make their senior people accessible than I have seen in two years."
During the week of Sept. 22 alone, Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon brass, as well as Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, appeared at a half-dozen House and Senate hearings to make the administration's case. Cheney also went to the Hill to rally support among Republicans. Congressional experts are not surprised.
"The administration has been forced to make adjustments in its policy and to be more forthcoming about the costs involved," Mann said. "The president's weakened political standing gives members of Congress the resolve to start playing their appointed constitutional role."
In this changed atmosphere, Democrats have felt more emboldened than ever to criticize the administration's Iraq policy—an aggressiveness that some Republicans have derided as pure partisanship. GOP officials, for instance, slammed Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for making highly charged statements during a Sept. 18 interview with the Associated Press in which he called the war a fraud "made up in Texas" to give Republicans a political boost.
Bush himself said Kennedy's remarks were "uncivil."
Yet the questions raised by senior Republican lawmakers such as Lugar show that congressional concerns about the administration's Iraq policy aren't limited to Democratic attempts at political point-scoring. Even conservatives in the GOP rank and file have grumbled about some seemingly unnecessary line items in the administration's $87 billion request. Conservatives are also unhappy about adding to the sea of red ink in the fiscal 2004 budget, which already is running a whopping deficit of close to $500 billion. "With some members, there was sticker shock of $87 billion, and they are trying to grapple with that," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters.
Indeed, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have aggressively quizzed administration officials about the $87 billion request. Given shaky public support for the massive allocation, Congress is feeling political heat not to supinely acquiesce to the president.
"Congress is not an ATM," thundered Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the ranking member on the Senate
Appropriations Committee, at a recent hearing. "We have to be able to explain this new enormous bill to the American people."
Fellow appropriator Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has been equally adamant about Congress's playing its rightful role in the debate. "We don't just sign checks. Part of the oversight is, What are they doing with the money?" Shelby said in an interview. "What's the progress? How long are we going to be there? What's going to happen six months from now, in their judgment, or a year from now? I think these are legitimate questions."
Likewise, Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., the chairman of the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said in an interview that Congress must play a significant role in allocating the money. "We want it justified, specified, and then we will appropriately put it in the right categories for spending.... And then if [administration officials] decide to ask for a transfer from one to the other, we can have some oversight of that," Kolbe said.
Kolbe also noted that he has "insisted" that any contracts for projects funded by the Iraq supplemental package be "competitively bid." Halliburton, a Houston-based energy company where Cheney served as chairman and chief executive officer, has been at the center of a controversy because it was awarded, on a noncompetitive basis, at least one contract for reconstruction work worth more than $1.2 billion.
Nevertheless, many insiders and outside experts are not sure that the louder barking on Capitol Hill will translate into much of a bite. They question whether, when push comes to shove, lawmakers would really turn down a presidential request for wartime funding, much of which is earmarked for the troops overseas.
DeLay predicted that lawmakers ultimately would realize that "when this country is at war, you have got to pay for the war." And even as Democrats try to use the debate over the Iraq funds to shift attention to the rising budget deficit and "neglected" domestic programs, they are quick to stress that they will not shortchange the soldiers. "The Democrats will support our troops and make sure they have what they need," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters on Sept. 24.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., talked about the possibility of splitting the president's request into two, between the $66 billion earmarked for the Defense Department's management of the mission, and the other $21 billion or so allocated for reconstruction costs in Iraq. Democrats, with the support of some
Republicans, also pushed to make the reconstruction funds a loan to be paid back by Iraqi oil revenues.
"I think that there is a real possibility that the $22 billion now requested by the administration [for reconstruction] does not have the support in the Senate sufficient to pass," Daschle told reporters on Sept. 23.
But congressional efforts to separate out the requested reconstruction funds, or to make them a loan, ran into a wall of resistance from the administration. When Bremer testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 24, he made the case that the package must be kept intact. He even suggested that if this "urgent" request were not approved, the troops could suffer.
"No one part of this $87 billion supplemental is dispensable, and no part is more important than the others," he said.
"This is a carefully considered, integrated request. This request is urgent. The urgency of military operations is self-evident. The funds for nonmilitary action in Iraq are equally urgent. Unless this supplemental passes quickly, Iraqis face an indefinite period with blackouts eight hours a day. The link to the safety of our troops is indirect but no less real."
Such words put a heavy onus on Congress. The Senate began debating the Iraq supplemental spending bill on Oct. 1, although Democrats were successful in delaying a final vote until after the chamber returns on Oct. 14 from a weeklong recess. In the House, the Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up its version of the legislation during the week of Oct. 6. In the end, some experts predict Congress will pony up the money, even if partly as a loan, given the pressure not to undermine the military in Iraq and the sway that the commander-in-chief holds.
"When you take money away, it can blow up in your face because it looks like what you are really trying to do is sabotage the president's policy," Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations said. "The president can turn around and say, 'We didn't fail in Iraq because I screwed up. We are failing in Iraq because Congress won't give me the support I need.' "
Similarly, Mann said he could not imagine Congress rebuffing Bush on an issue that he has painted as critical to U.S. national interests. "The president is still calling the shots here," Mann said. "Members are now criticizing and raising questions, but they are nowhere near the point of stopping him dead in his tracks. That will take a lot more negative experience before that happens, but at least they have begun to ask questions—sharp questions—that should have been asked all along."
Presidential Trump Card
During the summer, when Warner uncharacteristically went public with a sharp scolding of the administration for failing to adequately consult with Congress about Liberia, his comments reverberated at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The withering statement was a damning indictment of the administration by a fellow Republican, the usually circumspect chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Still, even as Warner made his comments on Aug. 1 on the Senate floor, warships carrying marines were heading for Liberia.
Warner complained that the administration had not even provided sufficient facts to enable him to make "an informed decision" as to whether a troop deployment to that African country was in the national interest. He was clearly infuriated that the day before, the Defense Department had suddenly canceled a scheduled briefing on the Hill by three high-level officials.
"In my 25 years in the Senate, it is most unusual to conduct our affairs in that way between the Senate and the Department of Defense," said the courtly 76-year-old senator. "Indeed, I am not sure I know of a precedent of that type of abrupt cancellation."
And Warner, who served as Navy secretary during the Vietnam War, strongly implied that he sees parallels between the way the Nixon and Bush administrations mishandled wartime relations with Congress. The Vietnam era in the 1970s, he recalled, was marked by "animosity in the Congress against the Department of Defense."
Warner said that the Bush administration did not prepare the American people for any possible casualties in Liberia, and he noted that a lesson from Vietnam is that the public must be ready to accept "such losses as they might occur."
Then, he asked rhetorically: "Has that been done? I fear, in my judgment, it has not been done."
Although Warner has a reputation as a loyal team player, even he had a breaking point beyond which he could no longer silently tolerate a dismissive attitude from the administration. "The involvement of Congress when men and women go in harm's way is a very important responsibility," he declared, adding that the executive and legislative branches are coequal.
Ultimately, the small contingent of marines sent to Liberia remained there only 11 days, but Warner's speech had struck a nerve. "When he speaks up and criticizes harshly, then that is going to make everybody take notice in a way that others wouldn't," said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's a real wake-up call to [the White House], because it's hard to find anybody who has been a more active and articulate defender of the administration in foreign policy than Warner."
Hagel echoed Warner's concerns. "I am absolutely worried about a very wide, deep chasm developing between the executive and the legislative branches of government," he said. "That is very dangerous, at a dangerous time in the world."
Warner is not the only Republican committee chairman to gripe about the Pentagon's unresponsiveness. Lugar was put off at the last-minute cancellation in March of the much-anticipated testimony of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, Iraq's first U.S. administrator, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Lugar chairs. Garner was slated to brief committee members on the administration's postwar plans, which some lawmakers now charge were deficient in anticipating the very problems that have forced Bush to seek the $87 billion.
Garner's no-show was a "fiasco," Lugar recalled in an interview. "He was not able to come to the [Senate] Dirksen Building, but could brief [reporters] in the Pentagon.... On the face of it, it was ridiculous." The Pentagon, Lugar added, was "all thumbs when planning and in dealing with Congress," although he noted that more recently, Rumsfeld and other top administration officials have reached out.
During the summer, Lugar began publicly making the case that the Pentagon should no longer assume the lead role in Iraq during the reconstruction phase. He has suggested that the State Department or some other agency could play a larger role during what he called essentially a "civilian" reorganization.
Hagel agreed that downgrading the Pentagon's responsibilities makes sense, since this phase of the mission "requires different leadership, different infrastructure, different expertise, different skills." He added: "What we need to recognize is that it does the Iraqi people and the Iraqi effort and certainly America's purpose here no good for the Iraqi people to constantly see American tanks and soldiers in place."
The comments of Lugar and Hagel reflect their stepped-up efforts to have an impact on this key issue. "A number of those very strong members who had misgivings before about how the Pentagon was muscling aside the State Department—but out of party loyalty, kind of swallowed hard and basically said it is not our role and that it is up to [the administration] to figure out what they want—now are much more willing to step forward," Ornstein said.
"They see Rumsfeld, despite his own background as a former congressman, giving them the back of his hand."
Indeed, others, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Joseph Biden, D-Del., strongly support a transition from the Pentagon to the State Department. But some longtime experts on foreign policy are skeptical that such a shift will occur.
"Even if you give State a bigger chair at the table, the Department of Defense is still sitting on the throne because it is contributing the most people, and you are not going to be able to shut Mr. Rumsfeld out," Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations said.
Moreover, members of Congress are hardly speaking with a unified voice. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sided with the administration in arguing that the Pentagon must remain in charge. "It's an insecure world," Graham said in an interview. "You're not going to rebuild Iraq when [terrorists] are blowing up the U.N. The Pentagon should be in the lead."
Even as this debate intensifies, observers such as Lindsay note that in the final analysis, presidential prerogatives will trump lawmakers' efforts. "The reason the Pentagon looms so large in all these decisions is because that is where the president places his confidence," Lindsay said. "And there is nothing that Congress can do, in terms of assigning responsibility or not assigning responsibility, that is going to affect who the president decides to rely on."
The failure, so far, of U.S. weapons hunters to come up with evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has put a spotlight on the work of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which have been examining the caliber of intelligence that the administration relied on to make its case for war.
In keeping with the new assertiveness on Capitol Hill, the chairman and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence fired off a sharply critical letter to CIA Director George J. Tenet on Sept. 25 expressing their "preliminary view" that U.S. intelligence on Iraq had "serious deficiencies." Reps. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and Jane Harman, D-Calif., wrote that the intelligence was "fragmentary" and "sporadic" and contained "insufficient specific information" on Iraq's weapons programs and capabilities.
Despite that tough tone, skeptics fear that the two Intelligence panels ultimately will pull their punches, given the political pressure they will feel not to embarrass a Republican president. Lawmakers already have "relegated themselves to a supporting role of the president" because of their "lack of rigorous oversight of the intelligence community," argued James Thurber, director of the Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies at American University.
Early on, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and is viewed as a strong ally of the administration, refused to even use the word "investigation" to describe his committee's work because he felt it was "pejorative."
In a recent interview, Roberts said, "Right now, we are taking a look at the credibility and the reasonableness of the intelligence." He suggested that the process is straightforward. "You take a look at the intelligence reporting, and you take a look at the recommendations that were made, and you say, does that make sense?"
Roberts insisted he has felt no pressure from the administration and noted that of the more than 100 administration staffers questioned by the committee, not one has indicated any pressure to testify in a certain way. The chairman also said his committee's history of bipartisanship continues. He and ranking member Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., have developed a good working relationship. "There are obviously strong opinions, but Jay and I have been able to settle out any differences," Roberts said.
But Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., a member of Roberts's panel, complained bitterly in an interview of intelligence leaks designed to gain partisan advantage by the administration's foes. "We have seen unprecedented efforts to politicize the work of the Intelligence Committee," he said.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a moderate who also sits on the committee, said that the panel simply does not have the resources needed to exercise the oversight that he feels is necessary. "There are a lot of barriers," Bayh said. "We ask questions, and sometimes [administration officials] say they don't know the answer, and we never hear back."
So, as the Senate committee wraps up its preliminary report, Bayh remains skeptical. "It is a patina of oversight, without the depth and consistency that I think the American people deserve," he said.
"The Republicans control both houses of Congress," Bayh added. "They control the presidency. Do you think they want more oversight? I don't ascribe sinister motives. This administration has shown that they like to act unilaterally wherever possible. Congressional oversight is an irritant."