An elder statesman on a note of caution

Resolve: In the rush to unity after the terrorist attacks, Congress should not lose sight of its obligation to question issues.

October 07, 2001|By Robert C. Byrd

NEVER in recent memory has Congress presented such a unified and determined face to the nation as it has in the days since the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11. Fierce partisanship has given way to unity of purpose.

Swift accord on the urgent affairs of state has become the rule rather than the exception.

These are good changes, constructive developments. Congress has recognized that the American people expect leadership in this time of crisis, not politics as usual.

But in our haste to act quickly, in our effort to demonstrate resolve, members of Congress must carefully consider and debate major policy issues and act only after full deliberation.

I fear that in the crush of activity spawned by the terrorist attacks, Congress may lose sight of that overarching obligation. I fear that free and unfettered debate in Congress may be muted by the drums of war.

Consider the defense bill passed unanimously by the Senate last week. This is a major piece of legislation that normally provokes hours upon hours of debate over important issues involving national security.

One would have thought that this year, as the United States is mobilizing for possible military action, the debate would have been even more extensive and pertinent than usual.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. What arguably was one of the most substantive policy items in the bill -- a provision conditioning the expenditure of missile defense funds on continued U.S. compliance with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty -- was pulled before the measure ever reached the Senate floor.

The provision was pulled by its sponsors to avoid what they saw as a sure defeat and, more important, to avoid the specter of a divisive debate over national security at a time when the nation was girding for military action.

Earlier, just days after the terrorist attacks, the Senate unanimously passed a joint resolution giving the president sweeping authority to use force to respond to the attacks of Sept. 11. Such use-of-force resolutions should engender hours of Senate debate and discussion. Such attention is merited. In this case, however, the resolution was adopted with scarcely a word of Senate debate.

I supported the use-of-force resolution, just as I voted for the defense authorization bill, but that support does not stop me from having some qualms about the accelerated process.

Because of a desire, in the wake of the terrorist attack, to avoid contentious debate on the defense authorization bill, the Senate gave away a golden opportunity to debate the merits of national missile defense and the ABM Treaty, an arms control issue that is certainly of center-stage importance.

Likewise, in the name of urgency and the desire to show unity, the Senate relinquished an opportunity to establish for the record, through debate, the intent of its resolution granting the president the authority to use force against the terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11. Establishing such a record is important, or else provisions might be interpreted by the executive branch or the courts in ways never intended by the legislative branch.

To be sure, senators made significant modifications to the text of the resolution that was originally suggested by the White House.

Whether those modifications were sufficient to accomplish precisely what Congress intended, we have yet to know with certainty. Perhaps a few hours of debate beforehand, rather than after the fact, would have resulted in a sharper, more clearly defined, grant of authority. Perhaps the desire for haste prevailed over our better judgment.

These are not merely issues for scholarly debate, nor are they an effort to second-guess the president. I support the president in his efforts to bring to justice the evildoers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11. Congress has clearly demonstrated its resolve and unity in that regard.

But Congress has a responsibility to the Constitution and to the people that goes beyond that of uniting behind a president.

In fulfilling its responsibilities, Congress must act with care and caution. No matter how strong the pull of the tide, we must be as constant in our vigilance of the Constitution, as fervent in our defense of the Senate's right to debate and amend, as we are steadfast in our battle against terrorism.

Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat, is a U.S. Senator from West Virginia and the longest-serving member of Congress.

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