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The Missing Debate on Iraq

Reading the news last week, it seemed like there was little debate in Congress about authorizing force against Iraq. Turns out there wasn’t any debate at all.

Even if you watched the House of Representatives debate on whether to authorize the use of military force against Iraq, you may have missed the views of Iowa Congressman Tom Latham. On the afternoon of 10 October, Latham, a four-term Republican from the tiny town of Alexander, said: ‘Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of our national security and in support of this resolution.’ Then he sat down. If Latham’s constituents wanted to hear more from their congressman, they’d have to read the Congressional Record, the daily transcript of official activities. There on page H7319 was the rest of Latham’s speech, the one that mentioned his granddaughter, Emerson Ann, and his belief that regime change in Iraq is in the best interest of the United States and its allies.

Sitting in the House press gallery, a cramped space on the third floor of the Capitol, I certainly missed seeing it. I read it the next day in the Record. Latham wasn’t alone in making the briefest of speeches. Other members, mostly Republicans but some Democrats, did the same. No one heard them explain their rationale for voting for or against the resolution.

It’s common for members of the House and Senate to ‘revise and extend’ their remarks so that anyone who reads the Congressional Record will see a longer speech, perhaps a good one, as if it was written to be delivered in front of a live CSPAN audience. But during a debate over going to war? On a resolution that could, as one slightly unnerved Republican congressman told me, alter one of the tenets of American foreign policy by endorsing a pre-emptive attack?

Most congressional observers know that there are rarely any debates on issues truly in doubt on the floor of the House or Senate anymore.

The top leaders of the House assured reporters that every member who wanted to speak would be given the chance. Some chose not to, perhaps recognizing that the outcome was already decided. Most congressional observers know that there are rarely any debates on issues truly in doubt on the floor of the House or Senate anymore. That’s a product of two things: the hesitancy of the majority party (the Republicans in this case) to schedule a vote unless it can predict the outcome, and the impact of live television coverage, which lawmakers know can be excerpted, sometimes unflatteringly, on the evening news.

In this case, I thought, things would be different. I wasn’t in Washington to report on the 1991 Gulf War resolution debate, but my more experienced colleagues in the press corps said it was one of the last true debates they had witnessed, with both sides listening to each other’s impassioned arguments. The fact that the schedule called for debate late into the evening on two consecutive nights also held promise: it has been my experience that the later the House stays in session, the more extraordinary the proceedings are. People get frustrated, sometimes angry, or they simply get too tired to provide a check on their words. That’s when things get fun for the few reporters who stick around. Most of the best stories I have about covering Congress happened late at night, when even fewer people were watching.

Usually I watch the proceedings from inside the press gallery, where televisions are tuned to CSPAN’s coverage. That way I can still take phone calls and check email while listening to speakers, since cell phones, pagers, laptops, and just about everything except a pen and some paper can’t be taken inside the chamber itself, where reporters can sit above the floor to watch debates. Reporters rely on CSPAN so much that the press galleries record it continuously in case we need to review something.

But there are times when I want to be in the chamber watching the House at work. One of those was the night the House expelled Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant, when the galleries were packed with reporters who weren’t even covering the story. I just wanted to see a historic—if more than slightly bizarre, given Traficant’s lack of self-censorship—moment in congressional history. I also like being above the chamber during important votes, because that’s the only way to see how lawmakers lobby each other—an arm looped over a colleague’s shoulder, or the arms-crossed stance of a representative unwilling to be swayed. That’s how I know who to talk to after the vote.

I barely paid attention during the Iraq debate because the outcome was never in doubt, not in a House controlled by the President’s party, and certainly not with the mid-term election just weeks away. The only times I went into the chamber were to watch yelling protestors get dragged out by the cops. It happened twice, and each time reporters scrambled to get a look. Then we went back to writing other stories, eating lunch, or surfing the Internet.

The resolution’s opponents tried to make it interesting, but they found few supporters willing to actually engage in a discussion.

There was no debate; instead there were two sides talking past each other until the clock ran out on what likely was a pre-determined outcome. The resolution’s opponents tried to make it interesting, but they found few supporters willing to actually engage in a discussion.

In a body where it’s common practice to tug at heartstrings during debate (one congressman, Republican Jerry Weller of Illinois, has used a huge picture of the same middle-class Hispanic couple in nearly every discussion of tax cuts), there was surprisingly little emotion during the three days spent talking about a potential war with Iraq. A notable exception was House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s speech just before the final vote on 10 October. Armey, a Texan with a penchant for interspersing country songs and fishing tales into his explanations of public policy, had his reservations about a war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, no doubt about it, Armey would tell us at his weekly press briefings in the Capitol. But do we really need to go in there and get him? What would it say to the world if the United States became, in Armey’s words, ‘an aggressor nation?’

For a Republican leader from George W. Bush’s state, this kind of talk was unusual, to say the least. So Vice President Cheney spent some time meeting with Armey in September, trying to convince him that since Saddam’s anti-aircraft defenses had been shooting at American pilots since the end of the Gulf War, an invasion wouldn’t be pre-emptive. It worked. When Armey explained the theory at a press conference three days before the vote, he removed one of the only interesting aspects of the debate. Everyone knew Armey likely would vote for the resolution, but we did wonder how, logically, he would explain it.

Even Democrats who supported the resolution realized the debate would fall short. Maurice Hinchey of New York pointed out the obvious flaw in the customary sharing of time between Republicans and Democrats: supporters of the resolution (nearly all of the Republicans and half the Democrats) would get about 75 percent of the speaking time if Democratic leaders divided their half for those in favor and those against.

‘I ask, how can we have a fair and open exchange on the merits of this resolution when those who opposed to the resolution, regardless of what party they may belong to, are not provided the opportunity to make their case?’ Hinchey said.

Supporters had so much time that they ended up giving some of it away. This doesn’t happen often in the House, where time is a weapon in the hands of an intelligent and persuasive speaker. Give Barney Frank, the Massachusetts liberal, or Bill Thomas, the caustic Ways & Means Committee Chairman, enough time and both can frustrate just about any opponent. Late on Wednesday night, the Republican floor manager (who controls his side’s time), Darrell Issa of California, found himself with too much time and not enough speakers. So he gave up 40 minutes to Democrats, who used all of it to speak against authorizing military force against Iraq.

A generous gesture, to be sure, and perhaps an indication of the bipartisan cooperation foreign policy discussions are supposed to produce. But if the outcome was in any doubt, no member of Congress would have done as Issa did. He gave away the time not because he wanted his opponents to be heard, but because he had no more speakers on his side. He gave away the opportunity to debate because there was nothing to debate, nothing to discuss. The only question was the margin of victory.