For weeks, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been confronted with an awkward dynamic. He’s repeatedly expressed public support for U.S. military intervention against Islamic State militants, but he’s been lost as to how, or whether, Congress should meet its constitutional obligations in authorizing strikes on ISIS targets.
Would Congress act before giving itself another 54 days off? Boehner said no. Would Congress interrupt its pre-election break to do its duty? From Boehner, another no. Would Congress tackle the national-security crisis after the elections, during the lame-duck session? Last week, Boehner gave that a thumbs-down, too.
Yesterday, however, the beleaguered Speaker sat down with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and took a slightly different posture. The host asked why Boehner doesn’t simply vote on a war resolution now, and the Speaker replied he’d be “happy to” to just that.
“The president typically in a situation like this would call for an authorization vote and go sell that to the American people and send a resolution to the Hill. The president has not done that. He believes he has authority under existing resolutions. […]“I think he does have the authority to do it. But the point I’m making is this is a proposal the Congress ought to consider.”
Boehner added, I believe for the first time, that he’s prepared to “bring the Congress back” into session, presumably before the elections, if President Obama presented lawmakers with a resolution authorizing the use of force.
Around the same time, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told Fox News that President Obama “has an obligation to call [lawmakers] back” into session to “start this debate” over ISIS.
This argument has been working its way through Republican circles for a couple of weeks, but it’s apparently become the semi-official GOP line at this point: Congress will meet its obligations, but it’s up to Obama to ask first. The “obligation,” to use Barrasso’s term, falls on the White House, which apparently is responsible for writing Congress’ to-do list.
I can appreciate the appeal of the talking point – it’s a creative way to blame the White House for Congress ignoring its responsibilities – but the argument’s repetition isn’t improving its quality. Indeed, there are two main flaws.
The first should be obvious: Congress is a co-equal branch of government. For leading lawmakers to say it’s up to the executive branch to send over a draft resolution for the legislative branch – a resolution lawmakers are perfectly capable of writing on their own given their basic job description – is very hard to take seriously.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but writing bills is what members of Congress are paid to do. They’re called “lawmakers” for a reason. Neither Boehner nor anyone else who’s pushed the argument has even tried to explain why the legislative branch should just sit around, doing literally no work, waiting for presidential instructions, except to say this is “typically” how the process works.
This is obviously unpersuasive, but it’s also on weak factual ground. When President Clinton used military force in Kosovo, for example, congressional Republicans voted on a resolution that they, not the White House, wrote. The same is true when President Obama launched strikes in Libya. In fairness, these were not measures authorizing force, per se, but they were lawmakers weighing in on the scope of a U.S. military operation by voting on a resolution lawmakers authored.
What’s more, when President Reagan deployed U.S. troops to Lebanon, the White House accepted a congressional resolution, but it came from lawmakers, not the West Wing.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said about Congress’ duties, “We’re not a suitor that has to wait to be asked to dance.” That’s exactly right. Even if lawmakers “typically” waited for a president to tell them what to do, that’s not how the American system is supposed to work, and upon further inspection, that’s not exactly how the process has “typically” worked, anyway.
Boehner told ABC yesterday he’s ready to “bring the Congress back” into session, but only if Obama does their work for them. Only the first half of that sentence makes sense.
Postscript: It’s worth noting that, on an institutional level, no one in Washington is performing brilliantly. The White House has launched a military offensive, but has struggled to connect the mission to previous resolutions authorizing force. Congressional Democrats, who aren’t all reading from the same script, haven’t exactly clamored en masse for a vote, either. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, see ISIS as an existential threat to the nation, but they remain indifferent about doing real work, and worse, they’re trying to blame Obama for their inaction.
Among the three, it’s the House GOP that keeps pushing incoherent arguments in public, but no one is earning plaudits here.