Monday, February 12, 2007

The Political Mechanics of Troop Funding

I thought I would share a small observation regarding the debate over troop funding with regards to the Iraq war. A lot has been said over whether the Congress should exercise its authority over the "purse" to bring the troops home, with every presidential candidate or wannabe making some sort of statement. Pretty much every politician is against it, and maybe for good reason... such a vote could easily be portrayed as abandoning the troops.

But that's not what this post is about, this post is about the mechanics of such a vote. First stop is the Constitution, Article I, Section 8 which lists off the Enumerated Powers of Congress. Among them is the following.
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
Which is very significant.

For the most part the Federal Government is funded on an annual basis through a set of 13 appropriations bills. The government ceases to function without those bills, such as the infamous government shutdown when the House Republicans and President Clinton could not agree on a budget. Now, if a hypothetical Congress truly wanted to write a hypothetical President a blank check for a war, they could just appropriate a hundred billion, gazillion dollars to be spent over the next 100 years and be done with it... but thanks to the clause quoted above, they are Constitutionally barred from doing so. They must affirmatively vote to fund the war a least once every two years.

Which brings us back to Iraq. There will be a new Defense Appropriation bill this year (and thanks to the Iraq Study Group Report, that bill will include the cost of the war, instead of a separate emergency appropriations bill of the past few years). Without this bill the war ends... period, end of story.

I remember an interview committee I once was part of where we reviewed perspective candidates for a lobbying position. The outgoing lobbyist asked one of the candidates, "what's the easiest thing to do in the legislature?" to which the candidate correctly responded: kill a bill.

See, there is only one way to pass a bill through Congress, but there are about a thousand ways to not pass it. And here's a kicker... even if the Senate, its ranks bursting with presidential contenders, votes to fund the war, the House can refuse to do so, and that's the ball game. Even a single Senator can filibuster (absent a Budget Resolution) the entire war if he wanted to; requiring a full 60 Senators to vote to fund the war.

Here's the last critical bit on mechanics. A failure to act is not subject to the presidential veto. He can yell and scream all he wants, but the President lacks the Constitutional authority to compell legislative action. He can't even dismiss the legislature and call new elections, which is a power generally held by most other executive figures in the world.

In the end of the day, the United States Congress really does hold all the cards.

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