When the House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved an amendment directing the president to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it was far more important in reflecting the nation’s current mood toward the Afghanistan war — and war generally — than in having any practical effect on administration policy.
Indeed, scholars, senior congressional aides and lawmakers acknowledged the amendment merely restates Obama administration policy, lacks any enforcement provisions and in no way calls into question the balance of war powers between the executive and legislative branches under the Constitution.
“This amendment requires the president to stick to his timetable, accelerate it if he can,” said Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who sponsored the amendment along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. “And depending on your point of view, this amendment puts the wind at the president’s back, or holds his feet to the fire, to fulfill the promises he made to our brave troops, their families, and the American people.”
The amendment, approved 305-121 as part of the House-passed fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill (HR 1960), nonetheless serves as an important political message to the Senate and the Obama administration about the nation’s war fatigue, particularly as the president contemplates deeper involvement in the bloody Syrian civil war. On Thursday, the White House announced it was stepping up support to opposition forces in Syria after confirming the use of chemical weapons by government forces.
The Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday approved its version of the fiscal 2014 defense policy bill without specific language about the Afghan drawdown timetable. It is unclear when that bill might be placed on the Senate calendar.
On the House side, the relatively short three-page amendment states plainly that it is the policy of the United States that the president “shall” turn over combat operations to the Afghan military by the end of 2013 and remove all troops and security contractors from the country by the end of 2014.
It further directs the president to pursue reconciliation of the internal Afghan conflict.
Last, the amendment offers a sense of the Congress statement that appears to contradict the directives in it. It suggests that should the president determine it is necessary to maintain United States troops beyond the end of 2014, he should seek authorization from Congress no later than June 1, 2014.
Further, the amendment takes pains to assert that it in no way should be construed as a limitation on the president’s authority to “modify the military strategy, tactics and operations of United States Armed Forces.”
Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, said that while the amendment was in no way radical, it also was not trivial.
“‘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  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.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.