Is Congress AWOL on Iraq?

News Abroad

Mr. Carter is Assistant Professor of History, Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi.

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Is the Congress today doing its job with respect to the continuing war in Iraq? This is now more than ever an appropriate question for Americans to begin to ask.

The Congress is, of course, vested by the Constitution with certain responsibilities of oversight. Its members, as representatives of the people, are expected to ask the difficult questions. They are expected to ensure the proper working of the government. They are expected, to as great an extent as is possible, to make the government responsive to the people. In the eyes of a great many Americans, it is not a stretch to suggest they are expected to protect us and our institutions. This role for the Congress has by now become entrenched, and the members of Congress take it very seriously and do not allow partisanship to play a role. Right?

One way to judge whether or not Congress is doing its job today is to look back on a similar set of circumstances in history and to compare the two.

Although many writers have suggested parallels between the events now unfolding in Iraq and those which unfolded in Vietnam all those years ago, few if any have compared the role of the Congress in both. This is a bit odd since it was the Congress, after all, that initially began to question American policy in Vietnam and, once latched on, doggedly pursued the administration of Lyndon Johnson and exposed the terribly costly and ineffective U.S. efforts there.

Prior to the election of 1964, Democrats in Congress were reluctant to criticize Johnson for fear of hurting his chances at getting elected in his own right. Congressional voices critical of the war in Vietnam remain limited to just a few such as outspoken Senators Wayne Morse (D-Or.) and Ernest Gruening (D-Ak.). Following 1964, and particularly following the major escalation in Vietnam that came in 1965, congressional leaders, Democrats as well as Republicans, became increasingly vocal and willing to cross paths with the domineering Texan over issues considered of grave importance to the nation.

Committees and subcommittees from both houses of the Congress launched a dizzying array of investigations into every aspect of American involvement there. In 1965, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) began an ongoing series of investigations into the war’s generation of large numbers of refugees and concluded that the problem critically undermined the ability of the United States to create an independent South Vietnam that could survive a withdrawal of American aid and military support. Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Montana) continued issuing his somewhat famous “reports” on the situation in Vietnam begun a decade earlier. As the situation worsened, the tone of these reports became more and more forlorn and acerbic. The Senate’s Committee on Government Operations launched its own investigation into improper practices within the aid program, turning up alarming corruption and waste. In the opening days of 1966, even such cold war stalwarts as J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas), also a close friend of President Johnson, conducted highly visible hearings into administration policy in Vietnam. Such moves were not without personal and political risk; Fulbright and Johnson split over this episode.

In the House of Representatives too, various bipartisan committees fulfilled their oversight responsibilities. The Committee on Armed Services investigated and held hearings on the situation in Vietnam and issued reports of its findings in both 1965 and 1966. The Committee on Government Operations launched the first comprehensive review of every aspect of U.S. policy in Vietnam. In 1966, its members, which included Representatives Donald Rumsfeld (R-Illinois) and Robert Dole (R-Kansas), went to Vietnam and conducted one of the most thorough-going investigations to date and found alarming levels of corruption, waste and mismanagement among and within the U.S. mission.

Collectively, these investigations, reports and hearings exposed a great many shortcomings the administration would rather have kept hidden. In exposing them, the Congress became, if reluctantly, the only force able to move the administration in any direction. At the very least, administration officials were compelled to respond to growing criticism and to mounting evidence which flatly contradicted the rosy reports from the White House.

Are similar investigations being conducted today on the on-going, open-ended and increasingly costly war in Iraq?

Just last week, C-Span carried “A Oversight Hearing on Waste, Fraud and Abuse in U.S. Government Contracting in Iraq.” Present were Iraq watchdog Representative Henry Waxman (D-California) and Senators Byron L. Dorgan (D-North Dakota) and Harry Reid (D-Nevada). They listened to alarming testimony from former employees at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, an attorney representing a group of whistleblowers, and a witness from the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. They described incredible episodes of kickbacks, bribes, deception, waste and profiteering. As far as congressional oversight went, all seemed well.

That committee, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, is, however, an unofficial committee whose responsibilities lie elsewhere. There were no Republicans present, nor were there any administration witnesses at the table.

The fact is that the committees of jurisdiction have so far refused to conduct proper investigations because they might shed some unfavorable light on the administration’s debacle in Iraq. While several congressional committees have conducted investigations into the much more politically useful oil-for-food program scandal, not a single hearing has been held to examine the mismanagement, corruption and allegations of outright fraud of its successor, the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI), an entity the U.S. government has invested with billions of taxpayer dollars and also controls. Those involved charge the DFI has misappropriated many millions and there is little or no oversight or record keeping. The majority-controlled congressional committees have so far refused to conduct legitimate hearings that would give these matters the proper venue and the proper visibility.

These trends seem likely to continue. Bush administration officials are increasingly bold in their refusal to submit to the Congress. A few days following the above ad-hoc hearings, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld refused to give details, refused to answer questions and abruptly collected his papers and left hearings before the House Armed Service Committee.

Is the political climate in the nation today more partisan and divided than even during the Vietnam era? It would seem so. If the majority party in Congress willfully ignores the constitutional responsibilities of that body, are we also headed toward even greater disaster than in that earlier example?

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Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Dear Adam and Robert,

Excellent observations and comments as always from both. I would like to add the "Money Angle". No congressperson, Republican or Democrat, is willing to jeopardize the cash flow (Jim Jeffords aside) generated by the military/industrialists and other cows in Washington. There is just way too much money at stake. Secondly, any congressperson from either party who rocks the boat is immediately pounced upon by the Rovian machine and the Media/TV/Radio hawks... Kristol, Barnes, Krauthammer, O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh et al... If I was in Congress I would keep my mouth shut, wave a flag and go along for the ride all the way to the bank... Hell, it's not my kid dying in Iraq...

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


Thanks for the excellent information... I really appreciate your well thought out/knowledgeable posts... One thing you did not discuss was the "under the table" money/perks/selection to powerful committees... There was a movie with Eddie Murphy to which I cannot recall the name... He was mistaken for a white candidate and was elected to the Senate... He was told to take a specific envelope if he voted for a certain bill or a second envelope if he voted against the bill... both contained large sums of cash... Although, no politician is on the take failure to be a "Kings man" may lead to loss of funding for public works, government jobs/ contracts for local constituent companies, pet projects or worse the failure to obtain party endorsement or a support for a strongly backed $$$ opponent...

Arnold Shcherban - 3/16/2005

<We have never found a solution to the insatiable desire for advantage & gain by individuals & interests.>

...which is the very essense of the American-type capitalism.

Les Hildering - 3/10/2005

I see your point. I am just a little worried if the Greens or some radical party takes power, then the nation might become unglued. I would hope that the two-party system that has given us all this freedom and wealth can be reformed without a destablization of the country.

I am concerned about the narrowing differences between the parties and worry that women may be denied abortion rights given the democratic desire --Harry Reid and Mrs. Clinton either being pro-choice or dangerously moderate to get centrist votes.

Robert F. Koehler - 3/10/2005

Mr. Spence

You can be sure both parties won't want it. In my State senators and the gov can run for 2 terms and reps for 4. While this was being debated both parties opposed shorter terms. Needless to say they got what they wanted.

The massive size of districts and the need for money to run a campaign in those districts is what checkmates the common man from running for office. Madison's notes to the constitutional convention describes the debate the delegates had over the proper ratio for representation, being 1 rep for every 30,000. As far as they were concerned it was just impossible for any individual to legitimately represent, let alone be properly known and actually engaged with any number greater. If demos is going to work it requires, no, it demands personal interaction between legislator and constituents.

What we have got now are distant media darlings whom no one in their districts have the slightest knowledge of except what they are told. So in that case you don't have people who are voting for the person but for the party, or some issue the pol is always vague on, or maybe because he looks cute. But 99.99% of the voters don't really know the candidate they are voting for.

You would say..."my God, do you realize how big the Congress would be?" I would say..."so what." The founders believed the House should be rampant with democracy, expressing the full will & opinions of the people, that's why they had the Senators elected by the States instead of the people as a check on demos. There is no demos in the House of Reps today to check since the parties have done a fairly solid job of killing its foundations these past 200 years.

Party bosses would never go for that one either because that would definitely put an end to their power. It would be a much easier & cheaper task for the average citizen to caucus 30,000 than over a 100,000 for a house seat in my State, or over 600,000 for a US house seat. No man or woman can reasonably represent such numbers, even in this modern day and age. But than they are not intended to.

James Spence - 3/10/2005

Adam, in response to your 55796 post:

I’m not well informed on the specific issues of term limits but many of the people I’ve talked to in my county would like to see shorter terms. I think it would change the type of people who serve in government. Maybe less self-serving individuals would step forward. Maybe it would change the political culture for the better.

But I don’t think this will happen easily, if at all, since no one wants to relinquish power. A key point in any society. Also, there are too many elected Republicans who might not think this is a good idea at the moment.

Robert F. Koehler - 3/9/2005

Mr. Ebbit

Yes, that's quite true. Volumes have been written concerning pork fat, boondoggles, graft and goodies piggy backed upon supplemental legislation. The pity of it is that what is known and the techniques in doing it are most likely the tip of the iceberg. But the most egregious thievery takes place within the defense budget. If your interested the following book gives a solid insiders view on the sickening goings on when Congress legislates the national defense.

Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security
Winslow T Wheeler

Robert F. Koehler - 3/9/2005

Mr. Ebbitt

Candidates and incumbents running for office in my state average about 175,000 bucks to fund campaigns for the state house, higher for senate seats and expenses soar into the millions running for governor or national office. There are notable exceptions but they are rare. Party bosses are quite happy with this situation because it negatively handicaps the common citizen from running for office. Most candidates & incumbents cannot themselves raise all the funds they need and must therefore rely upon party patronage, which is ultimately compromising since "if you take the Kings shilling, you are the Kings man." This quid pro quo is always hanging over politicians heads when favors are redeemed. Its just not where the money is coming from. Its the invidious purposes & uses to which its put that leverages the politician into taking positions he doesn't believe in or wouldn't support otherwise.

Mr. Spence

Your quite right when you say there is "fear in the air." For incumbents that is a permanent factor between them and their parties bosses regardless of the issues or circumstances of time and place. No matter how idealist, honest or legitimate a candidate may originally be in seeking office, once attained he becomes enmeshed in a world that is constantly demanding him to "grow into office." The temptations are powerful and he/she rapidly comes to understand that if there is one way to ruin a politicians career, party bosses know of a million besides cutting them off from patronage & party support. Being human beings where the lesser angels usually trump the better angels of human nature, its understandable why pols take the paths of least resistance that results in lack of "oversight," failure to execute their "constitutional obligation," obscuration and all the other unexplainable anomalies & absurdities that are daily fare in the political realm.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/9/2005

To put it briefly, today's economical and social premise
of the both major parties is basically 'what good for Big business, good for the country'. Practically all the rest
(with obvious numerous, but of minor importance exceptions) in economy, finances and foreign policy stems from this principle.
This principle is nothing more than propagandistic axiom hammered into the minds of the Americans by the apologets and lobbyists of Corporate world together with the mainstream mass media they practically hold in their pockets.
This principle, however, can be easily rejected by the majority of the US populace, if genuinely anti-corporate democratic parties and public organizations will receive wide access to the sources of mass propaganda. In present situation it is impossible, in its turn, unless that party enjoys more or less wide support of the US voters; then only the means of mass media are interested to "translate their messages" to the general public.
Therefore, the first thing that could be done in that direction is to democratize the means of mass media, eg.
by significantly slashing down their fees for broadcasting
and the federal fees they are being charged with.
The same should be done to the fees for the meetings, public gatherings, processions and conferences charged by the local authorities, especially in big cities, the fees
affordable now just to big parties and public organizations.

Robert F. Koehler - 3/9/2005

Mr. Moshe

"...Perhaps the resolution to this paradox that the parties have becomes more partisan even as they agree on most major national issues is that the partisanship has become more personal and less policy-oriented..."

It would appear so. Every night on the corporate media-organs of the establishment, the clueless masses can see national party leaders & players from both camps wagging their fingers at their counterparts across the divide. But afterwards they all have a good laugh when they entertain each other or sit down to dinner carving up the American pie. Its all theater and well understood among the party elite. Though they publically chasten each other you never heard Bush demean Kerry's war service, or by the same token Kerry charge George as an evil imperialist. The bosses have rules and leave the dirty work to the goons in the lower echelons of the rank & file.

"...both sides accuse the other - deception, disloyalty, or incompetence...Kerry’s actual war record was butchered as lies - cowardice - traitorous...Bush - personification of evil and imperialism..."

This is what the goons did and continue to do. Its their true role. The vast numbers of rank & file members in any party are the greatest suckers in the world. The nature of political parties ultimately compels & reduces the rank & file into the following unthinking life forms: Stooges, quislings, boot lickers, sycophants and lackeys. They are allowed no other role. Regardless of the issues, ideologies or beliefs that compelled such to join a particular party, they inevitably become witless enemies to everything they believe. The few smart ones among them realize that becoming a successful "money farmer" is the name of the game. Those who know or learn how to get the dough, fundraising, are the ones who ultimately succeed within parties by becoming party bosses themselves over the witless rank & file.

Party structures are autocratic hierarchies that cascade down from the national to the local level. They are principally organized as directorate corporations. They are not membership societies. These orgs, whether national or local are political clubs where all power is concentrated in executive committees. So called elected directors or officers on these committees have plenary control over the org, most especially over the nominating committee of officers that determines who runs for office, being namely themselves or others who have demonstrated their worth to the party. The most powerful bosses are the most effective at farming the millions from the corporate, private & public wealthy interests, and masters at orchestrating PAC's & other funding schemes. Money is the patronage that is dished, channeled and provided to candidates & incumbents, who in turn run for the seats of republican governance & power, who in turn pass the laws beneficial to the interests who provided the dough in the first place. Mr. James Baker is not called a "king maker" for nothing. In other words, what we call parties are nothing more than rackets. There is nothing democratic about it at all.

These rackets will fight tooth and nail to preserve the 17th amendment because election of senators by State legislators would weaken their hold on political power. It took a long time to murder states rights and the inheritors of power don't want it back. Nor will term limits solve the perceived problems of partisanship & the plundering of the national wealth. Parties have managed to cope quite well with term limits as applied at the state level.

The founding generation was shocked at the greed and avarice of fellow citizens that the revolution unleashed. The speculation in western lands was condemned by all, yet was indulged by all. George Washington in his farewell address warned of the evils of partisan politics in government. And what the hell is democracy? We have never found a solution to the insatiable desire for advantage & gain by individuals & interests. Everyone stopped listening to the first President when he finally went home for good in 1797. And Until we understand what demo's really is, as opposed to the modern fraud worshipped today, we will never understand how demo's can exist within a republic let alone benefit properly from or its operative characteristics and functions.

These are the 3 biggest problems in America in my view. And if you can find an answer to them you will become the second greatest historical figure in American history right behind America's First Cinncinatus

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/8/2005

Patrick and James,
Both good posts. How about the idea of term limits for House members to a maximum of, say, 4 terms (or 8 years). This would force ambitious Congressmen from spending more time legislating real policy since they would have to have something on their resumes and there would not be enough time to bring home that much pork. Considering the fact that over 90-95% of Congressmen run virtually unoppossed and win relection, the extraordinary insertion of new blood might be a very positive effect.

What do you think?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/8/2005

You make an excellent point about the fact that there appears to be “no real argument between them concerning the war on Iraq.”

Your analysis in the remainder of your post is equally well-taken. Perhaps the resolution to this paradox that the parties have becomes more partisan even as they agree on most major national issues is that the partisanship has become more personal and less policy-oriented. Thus both sides accuse the other, not necessarily of bad policy (although certainly that too) but primarily of deception, disloyalty, or incompetence.

Debate over the war has now focused on which party cares more about the troops, hardly a policy disagreement but a significant charge leveled against the other party. This partisanship was seen most evidently during the campaign, when Kerry’s actual war record was butchered as lies, and his wartime service denounced as cowardice, and even traitorous. Bush, in the meantime, was beyond foolish but also the personification of evil and imperialism. That is the model today: Republicans are savage imperialists, and Democrats are unpatriotic traitors (given the option, is it any wonder why more people choose the Republican Darth Vader over the Democrats Jane Fonda).

The truly sad part about this is that when truly informative and damning evidence really does emerge, the other side simply chalks it up to partisanship to the point where whether or not there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11, or whether or not Social Security will be bankrupt in 2042 or 2052 have become ideological questions and not factual questions, whose answer depends on partisan positions.

That is a big problem, so what is the solution. One interesting one that I have become increasingly attracted to would the following idea:

Repeal the 17th Amendment and allow Senators to be elected by State legislatures as the Founding Fathers intended… but add an additional proviso that State legislatures can only vote for incumbents or current state legislators. This would not only return the Senate to its place a step removed from popular passions of the moment, as it was meant to be, but it would also channel the most ambitious (and presumably popular and talented) individuals into the state governments, improving the quality of state governments and giving all Senators a real taste of legislating before they make it to the top.

Of course, this would do nothing for some of the major problems this country faces, but it may have some fundamental effects on the nature of partisan divisions in a legislative body not directly answerable to the public. I am very curious to get some responses to this idea and hear your thoughts on it?

Les Hildering - 3/8/2005

I agree to the extent that the differences between the parties have narrowed. I think the article implicitly suggests that but to stray from our two-party system might create a dysfunctional situation where majorities cannot be cobbled on even essential items.

What is a Repug?

Robert F. Koehler - 3/8/2005

It appears Mr. Carters thesis is a timely work in the course of events!

John Bolton? US Ambassador to the UN? Who would of figured that one when to all appearances Mr. bomb thrower himself looked like he was out the door, good as gone. As Mr. Carter observed in his article the partisan divide has raised its head with demo bickering. Will the public see an obligatory demo rant that goes nowhere, or are the makings of a possible bi-partisan opposition with demo's & repub's uniting in opposition to Bolton's appointment in the spirit of the late 60's in the cards?

Arnold Shcherban - 3/8/2005

This country needs fresh air in the form on a new truly
representative party of people, not of corrupted Big Business and a-la White Man's Mission and US-US-uber-al les ideologues.
Damn with Repugs and so-called Democrats!

James Spence - 3/8/2005

No it’s definitely not doing its job, how can it when oversight has been driven by raw partisanship.

"The Congress is, of course, vested by the Constitution with certain responsibilities of oversight. Its members, as representatives of the people, are expected to ask the difficult questions. "

Asking tough questions is never easy, especially if one party controls both Congress and White House, but avoiding them is no answer either. Evenhanded oversight is not unpatriotic; it's Congress's constitutional obligation. But no one can be even-handed or logical when there is fear in the air.

And there is no fairness or symmetry either in politics. Compare the following: Republicans in the House took more than 140 hours of testimony to investigate whether the Clinton White House misused its holiday card database but less than five hours of testimony regarding how the Bush administration treated Iraqi detainees. The Republicans conducted oversight hearings on nearly 50 issues during the Clinton era and now they have suddenly retired their interest in oversight activities.

The congressional leadership is wrong to think that its current hands-off approach protects President Bush. It is causing even more harm than the overzealous pursuit of President Clinton. Lack of accountability has contributed to a series of phenomenal misjudgments that have damaged Bush, imperiled our international standing and saddled our nation with mounting debts.

Les Hildering - 3/8/2005

I would argue Congress was LESS vigilant until the Vietnam war was in decline. It gave Johnson the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and was complicit in the buildup and mission creep of the conflict.

Robert F. Koehler - 3/7/2005

Though the article is informative I believe the authors conclusions are wrong.

"Is the political climate in the nation today more partisan and divided than even during the Vietnam era? It would seem so."

Heartland America is undoubtedly divided into scores of competing mobs and played like a fiddle against the other by party bosses, hacks & strategists within both mainstream parties. Aside for a few members from each, overall I observe no real argument between them concerning the war on Iraq. Practically all are pro war and any dialog or debate among the parties principally concerns who could wage it better. Today's political parties collude together on many issues, often to the horror of the rank & file when wisdom, if or when, hits them between the eyes. Its not so much "climate" or demo weakness as it is that both parties have become increasing funded by the same powerful corporate & moneyed interests, and have pretty much evolved into being merely opposite faces on the same coin. So the lack of opposition informs me that the interests that own the seats of republican power in this country are collectively united behind the war

"If the majority party in Congress willfully ignores the constitutional responsibilities of that body, are we also headed toward even greater disaster than in that earlier example?"

That poor step child the constitution. From the time the gavel comes down in either house of the congress till it comes down to close it, the intent, restrictions and enumerated powers of that document are ignored and violated relentlessly. What was once a limited grant of power has blossomed into an unlimited writ to meddle, seize and usurp everything that was once denied to the federal govenment. The country and the people have long passed the greatest disaster that could ever afflict it or us. Because of our own civic, intellectual & moral corruptions, we the people, have created a monster that cannot be contained, turned aside or undone.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/7/2005

An excellent analysis, as well as frightening. The reality is that there is simply no accountability in our government today.

TV media have become mindless excuses to pit 2 ideologues against each other for 60 seconds an issue, Republicans in Congress have become corrupted by their majority status (in the same way or, in my opinion, far worse that Democrats once were), Democrats are split on thir position on the conflict as on other issues, and the president of the United States views any press at all as histile, does not read the news himself, and has simply isolated himself from any direct questioning from either the media or the unfiltered public.

You can still get wonderful and accurate news from many national magazines or newspapers, and on line through international news organizations like the BBC, but the vast majority of Americans get their news from TV. The lack of any investigations or hearings in Congress is an awfully big sympton of this problem.

As a side note, this article also demonstrates how analogies can be used to make some really good comparitive analyses about 2 or more periods of history.