Washington Notebook

September 15, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 26

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


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Representatives debate Iraq, but is anyone listening?

By Joe Feuerherd

It was the sort of no-holds-barred debate Americans might expect from their representatives amid an increasingly unpopular war. On one side, Democrats demanding answers about pre-war planning and an occupation conducted with all the efficiency of a FEMA emergency response operation. On the other, Republicans loyal to the president decrying a "cut and run" mentality that would surely weaken the U.S. in the eyes of its terrorist enemies.

The Democratic effort to force disclosure of presidential and other executive branch communications related to the "Downing Street Memo" was all about "politics, politics, politics," charged Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations committee. It was a contemptible attempt to "weaken and erode the authority of the president" during war, said Hyde.

Another Resolution, to require the Secretary of State to provide information on the outing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame, was unnecessary, explained Hyde, because a criminal investigation was underway. "We need to look no further than the jailing of New York Times reporter Judy Miller to see just how aggressively Mr. Fitzgerald is pursing the truth in this matter," said Hyde.

The outnumbered Democrats gave about as good as they got.

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The Bush Administration, said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., author of one of the resolutions, has placed the United States "into a quagmire with no end in sight." Rep. Gary Ackerman, who voted to provide President Bush with the authority to go to war in 2003, recalled a pre-war briefing from Donald Rumsfeld, in which the defense secretary provided pictures of an operational nuclear plant in Iraq. It is now clear, said an angry Ackerman, that Rumsfeld lied about the nature of that facility.

"At a time when public support for the war is in decline, the refusal of the Executive Branch to do all it can to put these questions to rest only further undermines support," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the committee's ranking Democrat.

The Sept. 14 mid-morning debate was the kind of raw political theater routinely undertaken when an opposition party controls a chamber of Congress. Remember Whitewater? Travelgate? Monica? Iran-Contra? Watergate? In today's Congress, with an emphasis on party loyalty above all, even more mundane oversight hearings and investigations are neglected. Nobody looked at FEMA prior to Katrina.

"Party has trumped institutional responsibility," Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post last year. "The sense of shared political stakes bridging either end of Pennsylvania Avenue has overwhelmed any sense of institutional responsibility," said Mann.

Normally, as the minority party in the tightly-run House, the Democrats would not have even had the opportunity to raise the issues, much less debate it in the full committee. So they resorted to a little-used parliamentary maneuver -- a "Resolution of Inquiry" -- to force a discussion. Under House rules, such resolutions are privileged. They must be considered by the committee of jurisdiction within 14 "legislative days" or they move immediately to the House Floor for consideration.

A full-fledged, nationally televised debate on the Iraq war was something House Republicans were anxious to avoid. The idea was for the committee to, as quietly as possible, kill the measures before that happened. Given that the media's attention was focused on the other side of Capitol Hill, at the John Roberts' hearings, the timing seemed right. Only four reporters covered the House International Relations Committee session. There were no television cameras.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, an iconoclastic anti-war libertarian, was a wildcard. "For the last couple of weeks" he'd been pressured, told that "for political reasons I need to do such and such." Most of that pressure presumably came from Paul's fellow Republicans, concerned that a loss in committee would force a floor discussion. Paul solved his problem by voting "present" on the three resolutions related to war documents.

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The only committee member to completely break party ranks was Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa. It is Congress' job to "oversee the executive branch" and failure to do so, said Leach, could lead to a "blot on Congress' record," a mistep of the kind former Secretary of State Colin Powell recently acknowledged for his role in presenting a false case for war to the United Nations.

After a lunch break, the committee returned to vote. Along largely party lines, they rejected proposals to seek the executive branch documents on the run-up to war and information on the outing of Valerie Plame.

For the Democrats, it was a point, however faint, made. For the Republicans, a bullet dodged. For now.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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