The Democratic leadership in the House had to resort to an unusual and underhanded tactic to pass war funding last week.
Congress has long tended to pass unrelated measures in combination with war bills, and usually some of these measures, such as funding schools, jobs, veterans care, or disaster relief, provide excuses for some “anti-war” Democrats to vote for the war funding. But including good things with war bills can lead the Republicans to vote No. When they all do that, as they did last June, no more than about 40 Democrats can vote No or the bill fails. Last June, the leadership and the White House were able to threaten and bribe enough Democrats to vote yes on a bill that funded both war and an IMF banker bailout. Only 32 Democrats voted No. On Thursday the House leadership couldn’t do that because over 40 Democrats refused to be bought off. In fact, at least 51, and reportedly 80 to 90 had committed to voting No.
In theory, this should have resulted in separating the pig of war funding from the lipstick of domestic spending. Both would then, in theory, have easily passed the House as separate bills, with the domestic spending facing an uncertain fate in the Senate as long as the leadership over there keeps the filibuster rule in place. It would also have forced the Democratic leadership to pass the war funding with more Republican votes than Democratic.
But that’s not what happened. Instead the Democratic Leadership produced something called a self-executing rule. Typically, the House will vote on a rule for how a bill will be voted on, vote on amendments if the rule permits any, and then vote on the bill. In this self-executing rule, the bill was to be considered passed if at least one amendment to it was approved. Otherwise it was to be considered dead. Either way, there would be no vote on the bill. There was, however, a vote on the rule. But here’s the catch: it isn’t considered polite and appropriate to vote against a rule, and Americans are not expected to notice how anyone votes on a rule. It’s not a bill, but a procedural matter — never mind if the procedure is to pass war funding without another vote.
So, we watched Republicans like Ron Paul speak against the war and the rule, other Republicans speak in support of the war and against the rule, and Democrats speak against the war and in support of the rule that would fund it. We saw Democrats, like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, speak in support of the rule that would fund the war on the grounds that she would then get a chance to vote for an amendment to defund the war. Think about that. Rather than blocking war funding, you support it in order to vote for a doomed amendment which if passed would have to be approved by the Senate and the President too. Not a single Democrat — even those who would vote against the rule — spoke against it.
In the end 38 Democrats, including very few progressives, voted No on the rule, which passed 215 to 210. That’s suspiciously close, and suggests that the leadership permitted those votes but no more.
Escalating War, Cutting Social Security
According to Congressman John Tierney, we now have 88,000 troops and 110,000 contractors in Afghanistan. The $33.5 billion in war funding is to send 30,000 more troops, plus more contractors, to Afghanistan (some of whom are already there pre-funding). This was the vote to fund the escalation that was debated in the U.S. media a half year ago. That passage of time allowed this vote to come in the context of a debate in which almost no one mentioned the word “escalation,” no one at all objected to the President having gone ahead with an unfunded escalation, and — on the contrary — various Congress members from both parties swore they had to “support the troops” and others, such as Republican Congressmen Buck McKeon and Jerry Lewis, asserted their responsibility to obey “our Commander in Chief” as if the first branch of our government is now a branch of the military.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi slipped a surprising measure into a budget that was passed as part of the rule, a measure requiring that the House vote on any proposals — whatever they may be — that are proposed by the president’s deficit commission, if those proposals are passed by the Senate. As Jane Hamsher immediately pointed out:
“The commission, co-chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, is packed with members who favor the raising the retirement age to 70, means testing, and private accounts. Many also support investing 20% of the Social Security trust fund in the stock market. It’s ironic that yesterday Pelosi sent out press releases criticizing John Boehner for expressing the very same positions on cutting Social Security benefits that Jim Clyburn, Joe Biden, and Steny Hoyer have. She’s putting this language into the rule in order to deflect responsibility from herself when it comes to the floor for a vote during a lame duck session, since without her approval that could never happen.”
Amendments: 162 Want Some Role for Congress
Following the lead of Congressman Jim McGovern, many peace organizations declined during the past half year to put their full energies behind demanding No votes on war funding. Instead, many stressed the introduction of anti-war amendments, arguing that we could get more votes that way. Moving three more Congress members to vote against the rule would have sent the strongest message possible, but once that failed, there were four amendments to vote on Thursday night, three of them related to the war. The leadership had a way to handle these as well: take them up late at night, past filing deadlines for newspaper stories.
One was an amendment to eliminate military funding from the bill. This failed 25 to 376 with 22 voting “present.”
Another was to limit military funding to withdrawal. This failed by acclamation, and Congressman Anthony Weiner, chairing the proceedings, moved on to the next amendment before anyone requested a count of the vote. So we don’t even now what the number of Yes votes was here. [UPDATE: A vote was recorded: 100 to 321.]
The third amendment, McGovern’s, was to require the president to present Congress with
1) a new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan by January 31, 2011 and
2) a plan by April 4, 2011, on “the safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, including a timeframe for the completion of the redeployment.” In addition — and this was a late addition to the amendment strengthening it considerably — Congress would be required to vote by July 2011 “if it wants to allow the obligation and expenditure of funds for Afghanistan in a manner that is not consistent with the president’s announced policy of December 2009 to begin to drawdown troops by July 2011.” This amendment failed by a vote of 162 to 260.
The 162 included a handful of Republicans and represented a significant number of Congress members willing to at least go on record as somewhat favoring minimal involvement for Congress in one of its chief areas of responsibility: war. I say “somewhat” because we don’t know how many of the 162 would still have voted Yes if pressured by the leadership not to.
The non-war-related amendment, to fund teachers and disaster relief, passed 239 to 181 with 1 voting “present.” This vote, heavily promoted by teachers’ unions — which tended never to mention the war funding — guaranteed passage of the war funding, since the rule required that at least one amendment pass.
The Senate and the President
The Senate will have to deal with the House bill, which differs from the Senate version.
After the vote, the President threatened to veto the bill because of an item in the teachers and disaster relief amendment. Congress is careful to pay for non-war items with cuts elsewhere, while funding wars on a Chinese credit card. In order to pay for funds to save some teachers from layoffs at U.S. schools, the amendment took away a small fraction of a slush fund used by the Secretary of Education to encourage corporatist approaches to education. Let’s hope that, if the Senate doesn’t strip out the offending provision for him, our president follows through and blocks an escalation of a war. Φ
David Swanson is the author of the new book Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union by Seven Stories Press. You can order it and find out when the book tour will be in your town: http://davidswanson.org/book. To receive updates from After Downing Street register at http://afterdowningstreet.org/user/register.