War Powers Compromise: Euphemism for Shirking

November 01, 1987|SHELDON HIMELFARB | Sheldon Himelfarb, formerly on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is writing a book on secret U.S. postwar negotiations with Czechoslovakia.

When the Senate brought up an alternative to the War Powers Resolution two weeks ago, I thought I was watching the stock market; within hours, on two votes, the measure lost, 51 to 47, then won, 54-44.

Unlike Wall Street, this was a one-shot flip-flop, and when it was all over the Senate was left with the flop end: the Byrd-Warner alternative, requiring a presidential report on the Persian Gulf operation and postponing a congressional vote for several months on the operation's merit.

Byrd-Warner was supposed to be a way of asserting Congress' authority over the Gulf operation, while both sidestepping the War Powers Resolution and keeping it intact. Horsefeathers! By failing to invoke the act--either to approve or disapprove of the Gulf operation--Congress didn't sidestep the resolution, it stomped on it.

Ironically, the stomping began with the very senators who were most concerned to protect the resolution. After the U.S. attack on the Iranian oil platforms, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd reportedly urged President Reagan to comply with the terms of the 1973 War Powers Act. Sen. John Glenn suggested that "the President would be well advised to report to us under the War Powers Act so he can have congressional support." Similarly, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. said that escalating tensions in the Gulf make it "more important than ever for the President to secure the support of Congress, and the way to do that under the law is to invoke the War Powers Act."

Like Byrd-Warner, these statements stand the War Powers Resolution on its head by relying on the President to invoke it. They constitute an abdication of Congress' constitutional role to "declare war" and make rules "for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces," throwing the responsibility onto the President's shoulders. No Congress has ever brought the issue of its war powers to a clear resolution, and no President has ever fully acknowledged those powers. This President is no different.

There is only one way to keep the War Powers Resolution intact: Congress must invoke it. This does not mean "jerking the rug out from under the President" by forcing him to withdraw the fleet from the Gulf, as some people seem to think. In this case, it is far more likely that Congress would give the President its seal of approval and authorize the operation to continue.

Congress was in a similar situation five years ago, during the Lebanon operation. I remember the problem very clearly because I worked on it as a member of the Senate staff, and because it was the first real test of the War Powers Resolution.

For the first time since passage of the act nine years earlier, U.S. forces were introduced into hostilities for a period longer than 60 days, the deadline for invoking the resolution. While mortar, rocket and small arms fire rained on U.S. Marines' positions, the President denied that American forces were engaged in hostilities, and for a few months Congress bought it.

It took the deaths of four Marines before Congress took matters into its own hands and invoked the resolution. The marble corridors of the Capitol practically shook from the sighs of relief that went up when the debate finally turned from the finer points of "imminent hostilities" to the policy itself. In the end Congress passed, and the President signed, a bill authorizing the continued participation of the Marines in the multinational force for a generous 18 months.

No one pulled the rug out. In fact, the President decided unilaterally to bring the forces home well before the 18 months had elapsed--and after 265 more Marines had lost their lives.

In the Lebanon case, the War Powers Resolution was used to apply the collective judgment (however flawed) of the President and Congress to the use of American military power. By passing the Byrd-Warner alternative, however, the Senate has opted for a dangerous quick-fix.

Instead of cutting off the divisive debate over whether imminent hostilities exist in the Gulf region, Byrd-Warner is silent on the question, encouraging the Administration to keep doing back-flips to avoid the terms of the War Powers Resolution. This means more ambiguous statements about U.S. policy and intentions, more contrived explanations about why our forces receive danger pay if hostilities are not imminent, and more disingenuous descriptions of every confrontation as "isolated," "complete" or "limited." When it's all over we will be left with both a weakened Gulf policy and a weakened War Powers Resolution, because the American people will be confused, unsupportive and fed up.

The resolution is not a laughing stock yet. But with a few more compromises like Byrd-Warner, it's only a matter of time before we see Johnny Carson holding a sealed envelope to his turban and asking, "If the answer is the War Powers Resolution, what is the question?"

Los Angeles Times Articles