ON Wednesday the Republican leadership briefly transformed the US House of Representatives into a theater of the absurd in order to block a debate and vote on US military participation in a genocidal war.
In an odd spectacle, representatives went back and forth between speaking about wolves, who kill other animals, to the Saudi monarchy, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people – mostly civilians including children – and pushed 14 million people to the brink of starvation.
The Republicans had hijacked the “Manage our Wolves Act” – a bad but unrelated piece of legislation – to pass a rule that would prohibit the House from debating H Res 138, introduced by Ro Khanna, a Democratic representative from California. The latter resolution would give the president 30 days to get the US military out of the war in Yemen.
The Republicans won by a vote of 201-187. But the Democrats could have easily defeated this surprise attack with some of the 17 members of their party who didn’t vote and the 6 who voted with the Republicans.
Most Americans have heard nothing of this ongoing clash in Congress, which has lasted for more than a year, and is probably the most important foreign policy action that Congress has launched since it cut off funding for the Vietnam war.
What the Republicans did on Wednesday was illegal and unconstitutional. Under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, Khanna’s resolution must be allowed a debate and vote.
The War Powers Resolution was a response to the prolonged tragedy of the Vietnam war. It reaffirms that under the constitution the president does not have authority to use offensive military force without specific authorization from Congress. And it establishes procedures to help Congress prevent and end unauthorized wars. One of these procedures is that when the president introduces US armed forces into hostilities without authorization, any member of Congress can demand a debate and vote on that military intervention, and it cannot be blocked procedurally.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution is still the law of the land, and the courts have not overturned any part of it. There are officials in the “national security state” who believe that the president can decide without Congress to participate in a war. But that is not the law, or is it consistent with the US Constitution – even if some prior presidents have claimed this power.
Two Republican representatives who supported H Res 138 cited James Madison in a letter to their colleagues on Wednesday: “In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.”
In the 20th century the most important checks on US military overreach came from Congress. In addition to the historic 1973 War Powers Resolution, the Congress cut off funds for US military intervention in Angola in 1976. In the mid-1980s the Congress cut US aid to the Contras who were waging a war to topple the government of Nicaragua; this led to the Iran-Contra scandal, after the Reagan White House decided to continue funding the war through illegal weapons sales to Iran.
Following the Saudi murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, more people have begun to see that ending US military participation in this war and complicity in war crimes – which includeusing mass starvation as weapon – is the most urgent priority in the “re-evalutation of our relationship with the Saudis.”
Fortunately, this battle in Congress is far from over, and the proponents of war are losing. In the Senate, Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee, are re-introducing a similarresolution that got 44 votes in February. If that vote were held today, it would likely pass.
The Trump administration knows this, and so the White House announced last Friday that it would stop refueling the Saudi and UAE bombers in mid-air. It hasn’t happened yet, and of course any suspension of re-fueling not ordered by Congress could simply be resumed. Congressional sources believe that Trump may do something just before the Senate vote in order to try to pull a few Senators away from voting to end the war.
In addition, even if mid-air refueling is suspended, without congressional prohibition on all offensive US military activities, the US can continue its engagement in logistics, special operations, and targeting assistance – all of it concealed from view of American public.
The new House in January, with a Democratic majority and solid supportfrom the leadership, should have no trouble passing the resolution. But the human costs of delay are enormous. Experts have pointed out that once a famine breaks out it will be too late to save many of the victims.
Sooner or later, the Trump administration will be forced to withdraw from this genocidal war. The only question is how many people will die before it happens.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington and the president of Just Foreign Policy, is the author of Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy (2015, Oxford University Press).