The political world’s preoccupation with President Obama’s vacation is excessive, but it also obscures a more salient point. Republicans and pundits may be outraged that the president took some time off and played some golf, but Congress is in the middle of a much longer break – and lawmakers have some work to do.
In his latest Sunday-show appearance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained bitterly about the White House’s foreign policy before turning his attention to ISIS. “There is no boundary between Syria and Iraq,” McCain told Fox News. “One of the key decisions the president is going to have to make is airpower in Syria.”
There’s certainly ample room for debate about the merits of airstrikes in Syria, but the part of McCain’s comments that stood out for me was the notion that this is a “key decision” that “the president is going to have to make.”
I hate to sound picky, but there’s an institution popularly known as “Congress.” Under our system of government, it’s supposed to play a role in these “key decisions,” too.
Indeed, around the same time as McCain’s comments, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) talked to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about lawmakers’ role.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Congressman, if you get the kind of expansion [into Syria] you and General Allen then are talking about, won’t that require a new authorization from Congress? The 2001 authorization targeted al Qaeda, not ISIS. It would be a real stretch to put this under the Iraq authorization of 2002. So won’t Congress have to act here?MCCAUL: We believe that the administration should be in consultation with Congress. So far, they have, under the War Powers Act. But once that period of time expires, we believe it’s necessary to come back to the Congress to get additional authorities and to update, if you will, the authored use of military force.
As my colleague Mike Yarvitz noted, when McCaul says “we believe” it’s not entirely clear who he’s referring to – is this the position of the House Republican leadership? – but his comments nevertheless point to a possible congressional vote on the horizon.
That is, at least in theory.
McCaul at least said the right things about congressional authorization, but few genuinely believe lawmakers will actually follow through. After all, last year, many lawmakers jumped up and down about the need for airstrikes in Syria – at the time, the preferred target was the Assad regime, not ISIS – but the moment Obama turned to Congress for authorization, lawmakers hid under their desks and stopped answering their phones.
By all appearances, Congress is even less interested in holding a related vote now.
Indeed, there’s been a lingering irony about the Beltway’s near-constant whining surrounding Obama’s two-week vacation: the president has been the only one actually governing in August. In recent weeks, it was Obama whose administration not only helped address the crisis in Ferguson, the president also ordered several dozen airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq.
What was Congress’ role? So far, there hasn’t been one – lawmakers are on a five-week break and there hasn’t even been a hint of chatter about the House and Senate returning early to address pressing issues. There seems to be a general understanding that lawmakers are predisposed to do nothing, allow the White House to make the “key decisions,” and then complain from the sidelines.
Rachel talked to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member on the House Intelligence Committee, about this very subject on Friday’s show.
Correction: Schiff is a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, not the ranking member.