WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, asked on television the other day what Congress should do if President Bush launches an offensive war in the Persian Gulf without a congressional declaration of war as stipulated in the Constitution, offered a politically impractical response.
Gephardt said in that event, "Congress has to reach for the only tool left to it, which is to cut off the funding for the war." But it takes no clairvoyant to foresee the public reaction to such a step once a shooting war started and American forces in the gulf came under fire. There would be public outrage against failure to support U.S. troops to the hilt with the military equipment needed, as well as heavy Republican criticism of those in fTC Congress, who principally would be Democrats, who voted for such a fund cutoff in defiance of the president's action.
The same is true regarding those members of Congress who would go to court to bar Bush from starting a war without congressional approval. A U.S. District Court judge last month turned back such a request as premature and because only 53 House members petitioned him. He indicated that "only if a majority of the House and Senate seeks relief from an infringement on its constitutional war declaration power" might they "be entitled to receive it." But then, too, once the shooting started, Congress would be subjecting itself to charges of abandoning American men and women in combat.
Nor is a congressional resolution calling on the president to rely solely on the economic embargo now in place against Iraq going to convince him not to initiate offensive action. He already has contended that as commander-in-chief of the armed forces he is empowered to take such action in the broad "national interest" -- as he defines it -- on his own.
Gephardt is wrong, however, when he says cutting off funds for U.S. offensive action is "the only tool left" to Congress to avert what Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell has said will be a "constitutional crisis" if Bush does start a war in the gulf on his own.
Members of Congress who believe such action would be an unconstitutional usurpation of their war-declaration power under Article I, Section 8 can do something that will not have as its direct consequence the denial of military resources to American forces under fire. They can notify the president that they will continue funding the troops in the field but at the same time initiate an impeachment inquiry against him personally in the House for flagrant violation of the Constitution.
The political realities and Congress' proven timidity, however, militate against the national legislature taking such a step as a kind of warning shot across Bush's bow. But it would provide the means whereby those in Congress who profess to see a "constitutional crisis" arising from the threat of a war launched by the executive branch could stand up and be counted.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a principal signer of the letter by 110 House Democrats urging continued economic sanctions in place of a Bush-declared war, says that if Bush starts a war and ends it quickly, the question of a constitutional crisis won't ever arise. But if that war drags on for months and months, he says, "if things go wrong, then there will be a possibility" of impeachment.
Ever since President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 after the questionable circumstances of a North Vietnamese torpedo boat attack on U.S. destroyers, Congress has been guarded about giving any president a blank check on making war. On that occasion, only two Democratic senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, voted no. They were castigated at the time but later became heroes of the anti-war movement when the U.S. involvement in Vietnam collapsed.
Bush says now that "his" war won't be another Vietnam, but will be swift and decisive. But what if it isn't? If some members of Congress believe, as Morse and Gruening did in 1964, that the president should not have a blank check to commit the country to a war whose duration can't be predicted, maybe such a step would be wise, and courageous. It would let Bush know in no uncertain terms that if he thumbs his nose at them, and more importantly at the Constitution, by taking the country to war unilaterally, he will be held personally accountable.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.