Pelosi in Syria

The Speaker of the House should know how taxpayers’ money is being spent abroad, writes Scott Lilly.

In the summer of 2003, Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona, chairman of the House subcommittee that manages the America’s foreign assistance programs, traveled to Kuwait on his way to Iraq. Kolbe knew—despite the assurances of President Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—that the administration would soon be asking for billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury for Iraqi reconstruction.

Kolbe knew it would fall to him to assure other members of Congress that the money was needed and would be used effectively. But once in Kuwait, Kolbe found that the Bush administration would not allow him to cross the border into Iraq. He was told that they did not have the resources to provide the necessary support and security.

This was at a time when hundreds of reporters were “imbedded” with U.S. military units and U.S. military contractors were pouring into Iraq by the thousands. It was also, we now know, the period during which hundreds of young, inexperienced Republican political operatives were being recruited by the Pentagon to go to Baghdad and assume major responsibilities in the reconstruction effort.

Undeterred, Kolbe soon found a contractor that would allow him to pose as an unpaid temporary worker. Within a few days he was examining broken power lines, understaffed health clinics, and bomb damaged school buildings inside Iraq.

Kolbe’s decision to oversee the spending of taxpayer money in Iraq provides critical context to current controversy the White House has generated over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria this week.

As the White House quite rightly points out, any attempt to conduct diplomacy, speak in behalf of the United States government, or signal a new policy toward a foreign nation, is a violation of the constitutional prerogatives of the president. But the oath of office that the president must take requires that he “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” not just when it is in the interest of the presidency, but when there is infringement of the constitutional authorities of any of the three branches.

Neither Kolbe nor Pelosi were impinging on the authority of the executive branch or attempting to do the job assigned to the president. They were merely attempting to fill the role which the Constitution has assigned to Congress.

Members of Congress are charged with the increasingly heavy responsibility of giving or withholding the resources necessary to conduct our nation’s military, diplomatic, and economic relations around the world. To do so, they have an obligation under the Constitution to know what challenges face the country, what the various options are for meeting those challenges, and how effectively the executive branch is performing in pursuing the options they have chosen.

Congress cannot meet that obligation by sitting behind their desks in the Capitol and receiving briefings (from the executive branch) on how effective their strategies are or how well they are executing them. They need to get out and kick the tires.

Despite the inference that the White House has tried to draw concerning Pelosi’s trip to Syria, the administration has failed to produce any evidence that she did or said anything in her meetings in Damascus that went beyond her role or responsibilities as a member of Congress. Indeed, her schedule was arranged by the U.S. Embassy there and diplomatic personnel representing the president were present at all times. It is certain the White House would have known instantly had such a breech of conduct had occurred.

Pelosi, who served for years as the ranking member of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, knows the drill. She can ask questions, listen to observations, and get a measure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a person—all of which could be invaluable in grappling with the legislative choice the Congress must make in the months ahead. But she did not go to Syria to speak on behalf of President Bush or the United States government, and the Syrians are far too savvy in the ways of American politics to believe her if she had tried.

The real reason the Bush White House is upset about this trip is it draws attention to their isolation in yet another area of public policy. The Iraq Study Commission, on which the secretary of state during the first Bush administration, James Baker, served as chairman, and the current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, served as a member, gave a clear signal that the administration’s policy toward Syria is a serious impediment to extracting ourselves from the Iraq quagmire and building peaceful and stable relations in the region.

Pelosi can not unilaterally change that policy, but she has great influence over how the considerable powers of the Congress will be used in pressuring the administration on the issue. She has an obligation to understand Jim Baker’s perspective as well as the president’s.

The appropriate conduct of members of Congress overseas is not an unimportant issue. As important as the role of Congress is in formulating policy, its members must always remember that they are not the implementers of policy, particularly when they are in a foreign country. There is no evidence that Pelosi crossed that line, but there is evidence of past transgressions.

When Pelosi’s predecessor, J. Dennis Hastert, became Speaker of the House in 1999, he brought to the office an interest in Colombian politics that bordered on a fixation. Hastert traveled to Colombia himself and met with Colombian officials in his office in the Capitol. But much of his activity was based on sending aides to Colombia to meet with officials of the government.

Unlike Pelosi, Hastert and his staff were not reticent to speak on behalf of the United States government, nor were they worried about negotiating as though they were official emissaries of the president. But unlike Pelosi, they were not accompanied by officials of the embassy and often did not inform the embassy of their visits. On occasion they even denied embassy requests to attend the meetings they were holding with officials of the Colombian government.

Over the course of several years, Hastert’s aides negotiated billions of dollars in U.S. arms assistance to elements of the Colombian military for specific weapons chosen as a result of meetings between Hastert’s staff and Colombian officials. Following the negotiations, Hastert would insist that the funds be inserted in appropriation bills; after the weapons were purchased, Hastert’s staff would show up for their delivery.

Hastert got away with this behavior because officials in the Clinton administration knew he and his staff could wreak havoc on a wide range of administration priorities. Clinton officials decided to look the other way rather than confront this outrageous intrusion into the constitutional powers of the president.

I would not recommend that Pelosi replicate the misconduct of Speaker Hastert or that she use Congress’s control over the resources of the executive branch to insert herself into the diplomatic prerogatives of the White House or State Department. But I would certainly advise her to let this White House know that their interference with the right of Congress to travel, ask questions, and be informed as to the choices we are facing as a nation is unacceptable.

After all, our nation’s actions in the Middle East carry a very big price tag that Congress, ultimately, must approve. Pelosi needs to know the facts on the ground.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His columns can be found on the Open Government page of the Center’s website. To speak with Lilly, please contact:

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow