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Afghan War Vote More About War Fatigue Than Forcing Drawdown

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
McGovern has for years offered amendments on the House floor that have sought to force a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. None of them were approved.

“‘Sense of’ resolutions are often dismissed as nonbinding and therefore meaningless, but in fact they are important as formal institutional pronouncements,” he wrote in an email. “Presidents ignore ‘sense of’ resolutions somewhat at their peril. They serve as a kind of congressional marker, evidencing significant support for a particular position. Congressional soft power, as it were.”

But Spiro said that even if the bill became law, it wouldn’t dictate the need for subsequent congressional authorization for the presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

Steve Griffin, professor of law at Tulane University and author of the book “Long Wars and the Constitution,” agreed, suggesting that if House lawmakers wanted to affect presidential policy it would use its funding powers.

“This looks like a policy statement and not one that would cause war powers concerns,” he said. “Concerns in the past have been linked to funding. There is no enforcement provision. Without a way to enforce, it is in the sense of the Congress category.”

Congress has used its control over the Treasury to force a president’s hand on matters of war. Spiro said Congress did so relating U.S. actions in Lebanon in 1983 and in Somalia in 1992, “giving Presidents Reagan and Clinton respectively deadlines by which they had to undertake withdrawals from those deployments. Reagan and Clinton accepted those constraints — they supply pretty strong precedents for such cutoffs.”

But the very lack of enforcement behind the Afghanistan amendment may explain why it enjoyed such overwhelming support in the House, senior congressional aides said.

McGovern, among others, has for years offered amendments on the House floor that would have sought to force a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. None of them were approved.

A senior GOP aide on the House Armed Services panel merely shrugged it off.

“Our interpretation is that it essentially reflects administration policy,” the aide said. “Also, as far as I understand, a statement of policy is not any more binding than a sense of Congress.”

Of course, this incensed some senior Democratic aides who noted that about 100 Republicans voted against the amendment, yet Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, voted for it.

“Even McGovern just referred to it as just holding the president’s feet to the fire,” one senior Democratic aide wrote in an email during the debate. “Which makes it really interesting that [112] Rs voted no. What do they want? And since McKeon is so critical of the president’s AFG policy, why the hell did he vote yes?”

For Griffith, the answer was plain: “No teeth.”

McKeon, it appeared, agreed, labeling it a “nonbinding restatement of [Obama’s] current policies” during the floor debate.

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