What Congress Can Do

The Washington Post’s February 17th editorial, “Not the ‘Real Vote,’” accuses Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) of cynicism for trying to stop the Bush administration’s latest surge to Iraq and for showing an alarming ignorance about conditions in Iraq. The Post is wrong on both counts.

The situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, yet the president is choosing to double down on a failed policy. Congress therefore faces the difficult task of trying to assert its constitutional prerogatives. Despite the difficulty, Congress must act to ensure that the welfare of the troops and the security of the American people are not further endangered by the president’s reckless Iraq strategy.

To accomplish this latest escalation, the President is taking these three unpalatable steps. First, he is surging troops into Iraq without—as The Post itself reported on January 30, 2007—basic equipment like armor protection for their Humvees, or proper training and experience.

For example, 60 percent of the young enlisted soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the First Infantry Division, which will go to Iraq in March, are right out of basic training. Units departing Iraq must leave their equipment behind for the units taking their place; and they are so depleted when they return home that the Marines have been referring to this phase as the “post-deployment death spiral.”

The lack of equipment on the home front is also inhibiting the ability of our forces to train for combat, and leaves the National Guard increasingly ill-prepared to confront another natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. And as a result of the latest escalation, all four brigades of the 82nd Airborne will be in Iraq or Afghanistan this summer, leaving the U.S. without any rapid response capability.

Second, the president is also extending deployment dates of some Army units from 12 to 16 months and Marine Corps units from seven to 12 months. As anyone knows who has been in the service, like Murtha has, extending deployment times has a crushing effect on troop morale and causes havoc with military families. Upon finding out that their tour in Iraq would be extended, one soldier in the 172nd Stryker Brigade described the reaction, “Some literally threw up when they heard the news.” The effect on the families is just as hard.

Third, the administration has reversed former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s policy on re-mobilizing the National Guard and National Reserve. Instead of allowing these soldiers to return home for five years before being redeployed, they now intend to recall some Guard and Reserve units, who have already served close to two years and have been home for as little as two years.

As chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, it is Murtha’s job to get the Congress to do everything it can to mitigate the devastating impact of the president’s surge. Despite conservative claims to the contrary, few in the Congress are in favor of cutting off funding for the war, since almost no one, including Murtha, is for a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, the vast majority of those opposing the president are in favor of a phased redeployment of American forces out of Iraq over the next 12 to 18 months.

While the Post argues that Congress’ ability to influence the president’s conduct of the war—outside of cutting off funding—is limited because the president is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, based on a review of the constitution and of precedent since 1970, this analysis is wrong.

Through legislation, Congress can place the onus on the president and his appointees as they make policy choices in Iraq, holding them—not the troops or the commanders—responsible for their choices. Congress can also pass measures to help safeguard the welfare of our troops, their families, and the country. This is what Murtha is trying to do by preventing the president from deploying troops that are not combat ready, preventing extended deployments, using the back door draft to keep people in the service beyond their agreed upon times, and overusing the guard and reserve.

The Post seems to believe that any American withdrawal will result in massive civilian casualties. Since nearly 80 percent of the Iraqis believe we are contributing to the violence and want us out now, and 60 percent think it is permissible to kill Americans, how can The Post argue that the American presence is contributing to stability in Iraq?

And as the past few years have shown, we are unable to bring stability or prevent the massive violence even when surging the troops.

Murtha’s actions are the beginning of the real vote that is good for the country, troops, and Congress.

John Podesta, is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress and was the Chief of Staff to President William Jefferson Clinton from 1998-2001.

Lawrence Korb a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Defense Information, was Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.