It’s uncommon for Congress to intervene in a war that’s under way — as the Senate did Tuesday regarding Iraq — but there is a precedent for such interference, dating back to the Civil War.
It was in December 1861, eight months after the first bloodshed in the War Between the States, that the House and Senate approved the formation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate the conflict. The panel consisted of three senators and four representatives.
“The majority of the members of that committee were radical Republicans, who were very critical of Abraham Lincoln’s war policies,” said Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army’s Military History Institute.
The committee lasted four years and held 272 meetings.
“As time went by, the committee became more and more antagonistic and critical of Union generals. They investigated every senior Union general other than Ulysses Grant and went so far as to criticize actions taken by individual generals in specific battles,” Mr. Crane said.
“In 1864, the committee expanded its duties to investigate all Union expenditures. They really went overboard, and all of this occurred right in the middle of the war.”
On Tuesday, the Senate passed a Republican measure calling for changes in the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and for the White House to prepare a schedule for transition to Iraqi sovereignty.
“Congressional oversight is an appropriate role, since the U.S. Constitution splits responsibility for war between the executive and legislative branches,” Mr. Crane said.
Given that the “pendulum swings between the president and Congress, there is sometimes friction,” he said.
In contrast to the situation during the Civil War, federal lawmakers “abrogated a lot of their responsibilities” during the Vietnam War, Mr. Crane said.
On Aug. 7, 1964, Congress passed a measure known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution giving President Johnson power to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States” by the North Vietnamese. The action came after North Vietnam launched one or more torpedo attacks on U.S. boats in the Tonkin Gulf.
The Vietnam War was the first foreign war in which U.S. combat forces failed to achieve their goal. As the conflict dragged on, some 58,000 Americans died and public opposition to the war mounted.
“In 1973 and 1974, Congress began to curtail operations in Vietnam, and in 1973, it passed the War Powers Act, whose intent was to put more control over war in the hands of Congress,” said Betty Koed , assistant U.S. Senate historian.
Under the terms of the act, the president is required “in every possible instance” to consult with Congress “before introducing United States Armed Services into hostilities” or “imminent hostilities.”
The resolution, which presidents regularly oppose, also requires the chief executive to consult regularly with Congress “until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations.”