Oliver Ellsworth, a Founding Father and the third chief justice of the United States, offered some keen advice to his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention in 1787: "It should be more easy to get out of war than into it."
His observation came during a contentious debate over a motion offered by James Madison to change the authority of Congress "to make war" to the authority "to declare war." Madison's motion carried the day. Thus was created a constitutional division of powers that has for more than two centuries preserved political order and provided for the common defense.
In addition to the ability to authorize armed conflict, Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power to appropriate money for the armed forces. But the Constitution reserves for the president in Article II, Section 2 the power of commander in chief.
The very traits that make Congress indispensable in preventing a concentration of power also make it ill-suited for making executive decisions about armed conflicts. War by committee, as Vice President Dick Cheney describes it, is a prescription for disaster.
If there were any doubts about constitutional wisdom, then the confused efforts of the Democratic leadership to channel Ellsworth ought to put them to rest. First, the House passed a nonbinding resolution on Iraq. Then Rep. John Murtha revealed to a left-wing Web site that the resolution was only the first step in a strategy to grind the war down by slowing deployments to Iraq with troop-readiness standards.
Now the Senate which had deadlocked weeks ago over which or how many of three Iraq resolutions it would debate may return to the Ouija board. Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wants to revoke the 2002 war authorization. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, favors a change in strategy that employs U.S. forces to maintain Iraq's "territorial integrity." Sen. Barack Obama advocates a de-escalation of U.S. combat brigades, leading to a complete withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
All this comes only weeks after the Senate unanimously approved President Bush's choice of a new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, the author of the current counterinsurgency strategy.
In terms of the separation of powers, the measures in the Senate are as meaningless as the one already passed by the House. Which means that Sen. Russ Feingold may be the only Democrat in Congress who has both read and understood the Constitution and who actually believes his party's rhetoric about Iraq.
Feingold has introduced the Iraq Redeployment Act of 2007, which would cease funding most U.S. military operations in Iraq in 180 days. His legislation follows in the tradition of the Case-Church Amendment of 1973 that cut off funds for U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia.
Why are Democrats in Congress running away from the Iraq Redeployment Act as swiftly as they embraced Petraeus? It's not because a majority of the members of Congress are afflicted with a multiple personality disorder. It's because they are afraid of taking any action for which there might be real-world consequences.
Cutting off funding would inconveniently make Bush's war which 29 Democrats in the Senate and 81 in the House voted to authorize in 2002 their war. Handcuffing Petraeus so quickly after confirming him would reveal too much cynicism.
Deliberating, rather than executing, is what Congress is designed to do. Madison, while recognizing the disaster of attempting to wage war by legislative committee, also understood the dangers war posed for the extension of executive power. "Those who are to conduct a war," wrote Madison "cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges, whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded."
Having authorized military action in Iraq, Congress has the constitutional power to conclude it. But contrary to Ellsworth that's proving to be a harder political feat for Democrats to accomplish.