There are times when government best serves its people by doing nothing. Libertarians argue that government should do nothing most of the time. But even those who support big government would agree that there are moments that call for no action from above. Given the choice between passing a bill and doing nothing, there are plenty of instances that call for a resounding vote in favor of absolutely nothing. I think most of us can agree that our government should take no action regarding the establishment of an official national religion, for example. Many of us, I’m sure, wish that Congress had chosen doing nothing over passing an energy bill written by oil companies, or a prescription-drug bill written by Big Pharma. Others wish that government would choose the status quo over another tax hike.
By the same token, governments occasionally operate under a moral imperative to act. Failure to pass the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments would have been criminal under the circumstances. The filibuster that derailed the 1957 Civil Rights Act was similarly criminal. Had Congress responded to Pearl Harbor with continued isolationism, it would have risked self-annihilation via inaction.
Where does congressional oversight of the Iraq war fall on the spectrum of governmental imperative to act? The question certainly became relevant recently, when a filibuster derailed a nonbinding, bipartisan Senate resolution against President Bush’s troop surge. Read that again. The Senate couldn’t muster enough votes to end debate on a resolution that had no legal power anyway. They couldn’t even decide whether to have an opinion, any opinion, on the future conduct of the war in Iraq.
This isn’t Pearl Harbor. Government inaction in this case simply cannot be viewed as potentially self-destructive. Iraq is not a threat in the way Hitler and Yamamoto were. But legislative silence — an active policy not only of doing nothing but of saying nothing about sending our soldiers to risk their lives overseas — amounts to a vote of confidence in a president who Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans believe does not deserve that confidence. Our Senate certainly seems uncomfortable with Bush’s conduct of the war, but since the senators can’t agree on the degree and nature of their discomfort, they’ve chosen to do nothing. Effectively, they’ve given Bush a blank check to continue doing as he sees fit — although a decreasing number of them actually believe that what Bush has chosen to do for the past four years has been effective.
Is this how Americans feel about the conduct of the war? Can we tell a mother whose son is among the 20,000 or so soldiers involved in the surge that he’s going because the Senate would rather hide behind procedural quirks than tell the president how we feel? Can we tell her that many of the higher-ups in government don’t think this is a good idea, but they’re afraid to tell the president? Can we tell her that sure, America is still a democracy, but when it comes to conducting this war our legislators decided to let one guy make all the important decisions because they couldn’t think of anything better to do?
There are some interesting legal issues dating back to the War Powers Act of 1973 and the wrangling over the Vietnam War that describe exactly how much oversight the legislature has over the conduct of military action. It seems unclear that the Senate can legally refuse to send 20,000 additional troops to Iraq. But the inability to agree on any sort of resolution — even a nonbinding one — further cements the legislature’s continuing inability or unwillingness to do anything about the Iraq issue. This has become George W. Bush’s war because of Congress’ hands-off approach. Every day that more soldiers die for undefined goals, the moral imperative to act — to take a constructive opinion on Iraq policy — grows more urgent. Congress ceded much of its power with the 2003 resolution authorizing the use of force. Four years later, this country demands more than an executive that makes questionable decisions and a legislature that does nothing. Congress won’t get its power back by filibustering nonbinding resolutions. But the time for doing nothing was February 2003, before we got involved in this mess. The time is fast approaching that the choice to do nothing is the most destructive one available.
Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.