How to solve GOP dysfunction: Propose a war!

Yes, the House can't even pass a farm bill. But on Syria, Congress is playing from a different, predictable script

Published September 5, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann                                                                   (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)
John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)

Not everything is like the farm bill, and few things are more different from a farm bill than an authorization to conduct acts of war. But on Saturday, after President Obama announced he'd seek congressional approval for his plan to attack Syria, Congress' failure to pass a farm bill (and what that might augur for the Syria vote) was all anyone could think of, and a ton of the handicapping since then has its roots in that comparison.

It's the wrong framework for this problem, though. The rapid shift in congressional wisdom since Saturday underscores that fact. And what's shaping up instead is exactly what you'd expect when the president of the United States is determined to strike another country, and asks 535 elected officials to share ownership of the consequences.

More on that in a second. First, the farm bill. Keep in mind that a farm bill could pass Congress next week, if House Speaker John Boehner hadn't given the conservative wing of his party veto power over a huge section of Congress' domestic portfolio. A farm bill was about to pass the House this summer when Republicans abruptly decided to make it considerably more punitive to poor people, and thus lost all Democratic support. But dozens of the Republicans who helped make it more punitive to poor people had no intention of voting for the final bill, and so it failed altogether.

Striking Syria is nothing like this. As weak as Boehner is, he gets that it would be an affront to the speakership to treat a war measure as a vehicle for GOP coalition management. And so the legislative process is unfolding in a much different way. I'm not predicting the authorization will pass by a wide margin, or even pass at all. But those who feared this Congress is incapable of passing something as contentious as an authorization to strike Syria because it's incapable of doing easier things were making a category error.

As unpopular as the proposed action is right now, and as willing as President Obama's political enemies were to criticize whatever he did vis-a-vis Syria so long as they had no ownership of it, the establishment is extraordinarily deferential to the executive branch when the president readies his Tomahawks.

Not everyone in Congress cares about the establishment (which is why the House very nearly voted this summer to defund major NSA surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden) but it still wields tons of power. So when Obama decided to give backseat drivers in Congress turns behind the wheel, the task quickly became to make their shifts as brief as possible. In the House, Boehner, along with Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, all threw their support to Obama -- a key signal to rootless members that the issue is extremely high priority -- but quickly announced that the vote on the authorization would be one of conscience for every member. Boehner and Cantor handed responsibility for securing votes from Republicans to Obama himself.

Since then, members of both parties have grandstanded and harrumphed about Bashar al Assad and the administration's poor handling of the situation, but many of them have declined to take an actual position on the authorization, to delay accountability as long as possible.

Powerful lobbyists including AIPAC and the Republican Jewish Committee have encouraged members to support the authorization. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared an authorization with the support of Republicans John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Conservative House Republicans Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark. (a Senate hopeful who helped kill the NSA amendment), published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling on their colleagues to set aside their personal and ideological grievances with the administration and get in line for war.

"Despite … core interests, many Republicans understandably don’t trust the president to take decisive action," they wrote. "We share the concern that Obama won’t execute a proper strategic response. We worry that his action will more resemble President Bill Clinton’s ineffective response to the 1998 African embassy bombings rather than the 1999 Kosovo campaign. But Congress shouldn’t guarantee a bad outcome for our country because of fears that the president will execute an imperfect military campaign. In such a case, our constitutional role is oversight and advocacy of effective military action. One can vote for a use-of-force resolution yet preserve the right — indeed, the duty — to critique how the president employs such force. After all, we have one commander in chief at a time, and the United States is weakened if our presidency is weakened. No matter the president’s party or his past failures, all Americans should want, and help, him to succeed when it comes to our national security."

In that spirit, both the House and the Senate are drafting authorizations that are narrower than the one the administration requested -- no rubber stamping! -- but leaving them broad enough that members will have deniability if accused of tying the president's hands or asked to answer if Obama abuses the final measure.

And crucially, they're reminding each other that this doesn't have to be Congress' only bite at the apple.

"I would just point out that the president as commander in chief has the authority -- the inherent authority -- to act in urgent situations where time requires that action," said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., during Tuesday's Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "And I would suggest as you have come to Congress for this authorization, if circumstances change and there's time to come to Congress, you'll have the opportunity to come back to Congress and seek our participation."

Congress, in other words, is massaging the authorization to make it as painless as possible for majorities to support it -- one that appears confining, but really isn't; which allows the president to do what he wants, but also allows members to pretend they didn't know it would be interpreted broadly. And if things get out of hand Obama can probably just ignore the authorization anyhow, or if time allows he can return to Congress amid crisis in search of more power.

That's not a prediction it'll pass, but a reminder that when the issue at hand is war instead of poverty, our institutions become extremely adept at overcoming obstacles.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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