Congress in the Crisis

September 24, 1990

Congress is on sound constitutional and practical grounds in seeking to be comptroller-in-chief of the armed forces stationed in Saudi Arabia. While its efforts to influence military policy in the Persian Gulf are bound to founder on the inherent unworkability of the War Powers Resolution, its case for exerting control over the funding of "Operation Desert Shield" is indisputable.

The Constitution, which gives pride of place to the legislative branch, empowers Congress to raise taxes and borrow money to provide for the common defense by supporting armies and maintaining a navy. But it is the president who is commander-in-chief, his authority effectively limited only by Congress' mighty power of the purse.

In the Vietnam War, which demonstrated anew the obsolescence of Congress' war-declaration option, the legislative branch was caught between its reluctance to refuse funding for military operations and its growing distaste for the U.S. entanglement in Southeast Asia. Nor was it willing to raise the taxes that would have made the cost of the war hit home. As a result, Presidents Johnson and Nixon could prosecute the war long after it had lost public support or strategic justification.

Now that the United States is embarked on its biggest military adventure since Vietnam, the two branches are probing one another to determine where constitutional checks and balances will draw the power lines this time. Almost from the beginning, the War Powers Resolution was discarded as a limitation on U.S. flexibility.

Instead there was a burst of rally-round-the-flag (and the president) sentiment followed by a scapegoating search for State Department underlings who miscalculated Saddam Hussein's bloody-mindedness. Neither reaction could affect presidential powers, which left Congress off the hook.

It is reassuring, however, that Congress is beginning to exert itself where its impact can really be felt -- in the funding of the armed forces generally and the Persian Gulf crisis in particular. The administration grossly overreached when it announced willy-nilly that it would forgive $7 billion in Egyptian debts, sell $21 billion worth of advanced arms to Saudi Arabia and use funds from allies to finance "Operation Desert Shield." In recent days, Congress has sent a tough response: "Nothing doing without our approval."

As a result, a somewhat chastened administration is having to put the Egyptians and Saudis on hold pending action through regular channels on Capitol Hill; it has also virtually conceded that funds from foreign nations will have to go through the normal appropriation process on Capitol Hill. We do not consider this an exercise of power, but an exercise of responsibility. If there is to be a shooting war, the American people have a right to insist that Congress as well as the presidency should fulfill its constitutional obligations.

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