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Clinton and the War Powers Act

by Alexander Cockburn

on Clinton violation of Act
Now we're getting the word that a build-up of 50,000 on the Kosovan border with Macedonia is the next order of business. Wait for the next upward revision to 150,000 in a week or so. Then 200,000 ...

We've got an administration that doesn't know how to cut its losses and which is therefore prepared to wipe Serbia off the map rather than lose face. In short, we're in the count-down phase to disaster. Now we need something that took half a decade to build towards back in the Vietnam era: a huge peace march on Washington. We need a Congress that will go on telling the President loud and clear: he has no mandate for war and he won't get the money to fight it. On May 25 Clinton was in breach of the War Powers Act of 1973. Spare a moment and travel back with me to that same year of 1973 and see why Congress voted in that law, over Richard Nixon's veto.

Here we are, on the morning of August 7, 1973, in the Richard B. Russell Senate Office Building, Room 235, where senator Stuart Symington is presiding over a hearing into the secret bombing of Cambodia. Also present; Senators Strom Thurmond and Harold Hughes. The first witness this summer morning is George Moses, who had been an intelligence officer in the Seventh Air Force, serving in Vietnam. It was Moses who had written to Hughes, alerting him to the secret bombing.

On August 7, Moses reads publicly his letter to Hughes. "Two hundred years ago," it concludes, "we put our faith in the judgment of the people, and that judgment has proved sound." "And why," Hughes asks, "did you send this letter?" "I have a strong belief," Moses replied, "in the Constitution as the working document by which this country operates.... Through hearings held by this committee in the past I became aware of a feeling on my part that perhaps these principles were not being best served by some of the activities I observed."

Moses was putting in delicate form what Hughes had said far more explosively a week earlier, when he roared to his colleagues and to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Earle Wheeler: "I want the record to show damned clearly that I totally reject the concept of representation of the American people by notification of one or two members of a certain committee in this Congress of what the war policies of this country are -- and if that is or has been the policy of the Pentagon, and still is, I reject it totally. The Congress must correct it, or there never will be a moment in the history of this country in the future when the people will have a hand in the declaration of war or the conduct of war over international borders."

Hughes was a great man. The Congress did "correct" the situation, as Hughes proposed. It passed the War Powers Act of 1973, which requires that within forty-eight hours of introducing U.S. forces into hostilities the President report to Congress. Then within sixty days he must terminate such use of force unless he gets explicit authority from both houses. Such authority denied, he must withdraw forces.

Now enters a populist Democrat, Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, an opponent of the bombing of Serbia. Shortly before April 28 of this year, Kucinich noted that the White House was trying to win House approval of Senate Resolution 21, giving support to the bombing. If the House passed the resolution, Clinton could plausibly claim he had explicit authorization of force, which could then be used to escalate the war and deploy ground troops. Kucinich rushed out a leaflet to colleagues warning that approval of the resolution would be "a blank check for the President to wage war."

The night of April 28 the vote came. The White House was lobbying hard. Seconds before the gavel fell the tally stood at 213 to 212 in the White House's favor. At the last moment came the tying vote, dealing Clinton a huge and significant defeat.

Just twenty-five Democrats agreed with Kucinich, along with 188 Republicans. With this defeat for Clinton, Representative Tom Campbell called Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights to file his suit -- joined by several other Republicans, plus only two Democrats, Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur, also of Ohio -- charging Clinton with violating Article One, section 8 of the Constitution and, after May 25, the War Powers Act. "No other President," Ratner says, "has carried out such levels of hostilities as Clinton has for the past sixty days without explicit authority, and it's the first time since the Boland Amendment against Reagan in the 1980s, that the House has denied this authority to the President." Ratner thinks there's "a slight chance" a federal judge will rule against Clinton. And the point of the suit? "It challenges the imperial presidency. It says the guy is willing to flout Congress. It's closer to impeachable stuff."

The administration knows it hasn't much time to lock in a land war strategy. Public opinion is turning against even the air war. The April 28 vote threw the Administration off balance. That same coalition of Republicans and a handful of Democrats has to dish out another blow at war-making by Executive Order. There's not much time.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor May 31, 1999 (

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