Campbell stirs the soup

The Silicon Valley Republican is trying to force President Clinton to obey the War Powers Act, but first he'll have to convince GOP colleagues.


Jake Tapper
April 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Ah, that pesky War Powers Act. Sooner or later, somebody was bound to remember it.

Passed in November 1973 by the House and Senate over President Richard Nixon's veto -- and in direct response to his little conflict in Southeast Asia -- the War Powers Act is a tap-on-the-shoulder reminder of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which says: "The Congress shall have power to ... declare war." In an attempt to force the president to bring Congress to the decision-making table, the War Powers Act says "the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President" must decide when United States armed forces are introduced "into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances."

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Generally, the law has been pretty theoretical. Modern warfare has evolved into a system in which the commander in chief leads, and Congress keeps its mouth shut unless and until things get too awful. Regardless of what went down in Vietnam and Korea, Congress hasn't actually declared war since 1941. And since 1973, the U.S. armed forces have been traipsing in and out of hot spots as volatile as Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans -- to say nothing of smaller danger zones like Haiti and Grenada -- without anyone forcing a major constitutional crisis.

Until now, perhaps. Rep. Tom Campbell, a quirky GOP moderate who represents California's Silicon Valley, last week introduced two bills designed to implement the War Powers Act, and force the Congress to vote on NATO's Kosovo intervention, up or down. One bill declares "a state of war between the United States and the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia," while the other directs President Clinton to remove troops from the region altogether.

Normally the introduction of a bill isn't necessarily that big a deal. The average House resolution never sees the light of day. But under the rules of the War Powers Act, any member of Congress can force a vote on any bill relevant to this issue. And Campbell just might. Of course, the president might be expected to oppose Campbell's maneuvers. But, maybe surprisingly, so do some of his GOP colleagues.

One GOP strategist described the conflict: "Campbell is saying that members of Congress should vote up or down on this, early. But in the current environment, that puts vise grips on people." Republican leadership, the strategist says, would prefer to take the position that "the president got us into this, he's the executive, and we'll see how it goes."

Campbell admits some members want to have it both ways. "It's a lot easier politically [to drop the issue]," Campbell told Roll Call, the biweekly newspaper of Capitol Hill. "If [the war] works out
OK, you were with him, and if it doesn't, you saw it coming." (Campbell was unavailable for comment.)

As of Monday afternoon, word was that GOP leaders were trying to work with Campbell, getting him to introduce the vote on their terms, and not to force action in the immediate future. According to one senior GOP leadership aide, the resolution calling for a complete military withdrawal from the area should come up for a vote during the last week in April, while the one declaring war will hit the House floor in the first week of May.

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Still, any prediction is premature, this aide cautions. "Today's really the first day we're getting into the nitty gritty of the procedures," he says. Monday's Roll Call reported that Minority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is "working privately to derail Campbell's effort," and the aide acknowledged that "some are exploring various parliamentary options. But if you find someone today who says they know where we're heading, they're getting ahead of themselves. The game plan for the week is to figure out what are our options, [and] what are the rules ... The thing that's facing us is that under the [War Powers Act], members have rights."

If you knew that a Republican congressman was going to force this issue, it wouldn't have been too hard to predict that it would be Campbell. Though he looks like Rush Limbaugh's younger brother, he wears his moderation -- his allegiance to what he calls the "reasonable middle" -- like a Purple Heart.

Before he entered politics, Campbell earned his Ph.D. conducting what he calls "the first quantitative study of discrimination against women in the federal government." After Harvard Law School, he clerked for another hard-to-define maverick, Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Campbell brags that in 1989, he was the only member of Congress to garner 100 percent voting ratings from both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the League of Conservation Voters. He is pro-choice, anti-tax and says that gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights as straight couples.

Campbell occasionally frustrates House leaders with his votes, but most respect his sincerity and intellect: "He's very knowledgeable," says a senior House GOP staffer. "It's not just that he has a good staff -- he reads this stuff himself." Says one GOP strategist: "While he doesn't have a lot in common with Tom DeLay ideologically, he's respected as someone who's passionate about his principles. And a man like Tom DeLay can respect that."

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Campbell, 47, has raised the War Powers Act before, during military interventions in Iraq and Bosnia. More recently, he warned President Clinton in an Aug. 4 letter that he and other members of Congress would challenge any possible military action in Kosovo unless it went through the proper constitutional channels. He makes no bones about the fact that by forcing this vote he hopes to end the mission altogether.

"The use of force on this occasion is unprecedented in U.S. history," he has argued, pointing out that Slobodan Milosovic hasn't threatened the United States, attacked U.S. servicemen or invaded another sovereign nation. "What I believe is happening in Kosovo now is a horrible, bloody civil war," he said in March. "But I do not believe the evidence sustains that it is an attempt by the Serbians systematically and by use of government to exterminate Albanians on the basis of their ethnic origin. It is, in other words, not genocide."

Moreover, Campbell -- who served in Congress from 1988-92, resigned to run a losing Senate campaign, and was reelected to the House in a special election in 1995 -- clearly resents Congress being out of the loop. He recalls being present at a meeting between President George Bush and congressional leaders before Operation Desert Storm. "One of my congressional colleagues said to him: 'Mr. President, please ask Congress for its approval. We will be with you. But if you go into this without congressional approval, it will be extremely difficult for you to muster the support of the American people for a sustained effort,'" Campbell has said. "President Bush asked Congress for its approval. I voted along with a majority of my colleagues to support him, and he got it, and America rallied behind him and our troops during the Gulf War."

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Clinton didn't even come close to this type of communication with Congress, perhaps because his relationship with members was complicated by the House's impeachment proceedings. But the vagaries of the modern tradition of undeclared war must have complicated things as well. On March 11, by a vote of 219-191, the House voted in support of the president's sending 4,000 troops to the Balkans for a NATO mission "implementing a Kosovo peace agreement."

Then, on March 23, just as the Senate was preparing to vote on a proposal to block funding for NATO airstrikes, the Clinton administration made clear that bombs were about to fall. So the Senate put together a bill to support the strikes, authorizing the president "to conduct military air operations in cooperation with our NATO allies against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro)." It passed 58-41, hardly a resounding show of support. Clinton then sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for the approval he'd already told them he didn't need. On March 26, Clinton sent official notification to Congress that he was putting troops in the field, and he followed up with several more updates throughout the Easter weekend.

Since the March 11 House vote supporting a NATO "peacekeeping" mission, the nature of U.S. and NATO involvement in the region has clearly changed. But according to a senior White House official, that vote was all that's necessary for now. "The Congress has already made their views on this pretty clear," the official says. "All this does is insert politics into what is already a politically overcharged environment." The official went on to say that the president is aware of the War Powers Act, and has acted accordingly. "The administration is very careful to describe this as a 'conflict,'" not a war, he insisted. "I don't think we've reached a point that the legal requirements have been triggered."

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Most members of Congress aren't as sure what to make of Kosovo as Campbell. And, since they weren't exactly at the table with Clinton and the Joint Chiefs when the plans were being made, they'd rather have Clinton take the credit -- or blame -- for what happens in the war, one way or the other. "There are a lot of genuinely conflicted" members, says a senior aide. Campbell's bill forcing Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops only has six co-sponsors, and House leaders say that neither of Campbell's bills would pass if they came up for a vote today.

"At the same time, there's a feeling of not letting [the president] just do whatever he wants," says the senior GOP House aide. "Congress should have a role and have a say but in an appropriate way." The problem is that right now, few members of Congress know what to say, or how to say it. Many of them no doubt wish that Tom Campbell would just keep his mouth shut.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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