On Yugoslavia, Congress Must Act – Letter to the Editor NY Times – with Jules Lobel – PDF

1999 On Yugoslavia, Congress Must Act

To the Editor:

By a vote of 213-to-213 in the House of Representatives, the President failed to obtain the constitutionally required authorization he needed to carry on the air war against Yugoslavia (front page, April 29). The Constitution requires Congress to give its affirmative assent to the war. It did not do so.

It would be a remarkable and illegal act of executive hubris and a subversion of our constitutional structure to continue the bombing. The President should end the aerial bombardment and negotiate a peaceful solution.



The writers are lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights.




Text of Article

CRISIS IN THE BALKANS: CAPITOL HILL; Deadlocked House Denies Support for Air Campaign


APRIL 29, 1999

In a sharp challenge to President Clinton, the House voted today to bar the President from sending ground troops to Yugoslavia without Congressional approval and then on a tie vote refused to support NATO air strikes against Serbia.

The votes came during a day of heated and sometimes anguished speeches that showcased deep divisions in Congress over the escalating conflict in the Balkans. The all-day session marked the first formal Congressional debate since NATO began its bombing campaign on March 24 to drive the forces of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, out of Kosovo. The Senate had voted on March 23 to approve the air strikes.

The House voted 249 to 180 to require the President to seek Congressional approval for ground forces. Forty-five Democrats and an independent joined 203 Republicans to support the measure. Sixteen Republicans and 164 Democrats opposed the bill.

But the surprise came when the House finished its deliberations this evening by failing to pass a Democratic resolution intended to give symbolic support to the President’s air campaign. The measure failed in a tie vote of 213 to 213 even though Speaker J. Dennis Hastert threw his support behind it. In all, 31 Republicans broke with their party to back the air campaign and 26 Democrats voted against it.

The White House said it would press ahead with the air strikes. ”The House today voted no on going forward, no on going back and they tied on standing still,” said Jake Siewert, a White House spokesman. ”We will continue to prosecute the air campaign and to stop the violence being perpetrated by Milosevic.”

Even before the rebuke of the President on air strikes, Mr. Hastert said, ”I would hope that the President would take the diverse debate as a signal that he should better explain the goals, the costs and the long-term strategy of why we’re here.”

The House votes should have no immediate practical effect on the White House conduct of the war, since the President has said repeatedly there are no plans to use ground troops, and since he does not need the House’s moral support to continue air strikes. And it is not clear what the Senate, which voted in support of air strikes on March 23, will do.

The Senate does not have to take up the House measure on ground troops. But in an effort to take their own stand on the Balkan policy, the Republican and Democratic leaders were working behind the scenes to see if they could draft bipartisan language on Kosovo. Senator John R. McCain, Republican of Arizona, has introduced his own resolution authorizing Mr. Clinton to use ”all necessary force” to win in the Balkans, but Senator Trent Lott, the majority leader, has objected to the proposal.

At a meeting with lawmakers at the White House today, President Clinton once again said he had no plans for ground troops and promised he would seek Congressional ”support” if he changed that stance. But the President would not seek Congressional approval, his spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said, arguing that such a step would raise a host of constitutional questions.

While Mr. Lockhart stopped short of a veto threat, Democrats in the House said the President would veto any measure requiring such approval of ground troops.

Throughout the long debate, some House members invoked Vietnam to call for the United States to withdraw from the Balkans. Others drew comparisons with the Holocaust to argue for the air campaign. And Representative Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat, urged the rare step of a full declaration of war.

”I know that in voting for war, I will share the responsibility for those young Americans who may die,” he said. ”But to do anything else is much worse. The best course of action for this nation is to use the overwhelming military might we have at our disposal to end this war swiftly and quickly.”

The White House had tried to discourage such open debate for fear it would result in just the message of disunity that came out of the House today. Until now Republican leaders had also shied away form a debate, with some calculating that their party would be better served by staying quiet and allowing Mr. Clinton to take any blame for involvement.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen argued in a letter to Mr. Hastert that a prohibition on ground troops ”could be misinterpreted as a U.S. retrenchment” from its solidarity with NATO, and would impede the President in his role as commander in chief. But the Administration’s effort to influence the House vote was low key and the White House did not demand party-line support.

Today’s debates were forced by Representative Tom Campbell, a California Republican, who used his prerogative under the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution to call for votes on what he has called an unconstitutional war.

”Yes, we’re at war,” said Mr. Campbell, who is a law professor. ”We’re on the verge of ground troops. The Framers were quite clear that war was too important to be decided by one individual. Ground troops are very seriously being considered. Therefore we must vote.”

Working its way through an array of proposals, the House also rejected the measure to issue a full declaration of war against Yugoslavia by a vote of 2 to 427. The House also declined, 139 to 290, to call for an immediate withdrawal of all United States forces from the region.

Many Republicans poured out their reservations about a conflict they said had ill-defined goals.

”Was it worth it to stay in Vietnam to save face?” asked Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority whip. Sharply criticizing the NATO bombing campaign, he said: ”What good has been accomplished so far? Absolutely nothing.”

Representative John Kasich of Ohio, one of many Republicans seeking a Presidential nomination, said: ”The fact is the civil war in Kosovo has been raging since 1389. The fact is, our intervening in the middle of an ethnic civil war that has been going on for six centuries is not likely to be successful.”

The many Democrats who rallied around Mr. Clinton invoked memories of the Holocaust. They said the ban on ground troops without authorization would hamstring NATO commanders, force the courts to decide what constituted ground troops and send the wrong message to President Milosevic.

Some Democrats said the bill’s restrictions on what it termed ”ground elements” were so vague that they could be interpreted as banning funds for the support troops already in the region with the Apache helicopters dispatched there.

”Do you really want to say to him today, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing; we probably won’t be for ground troops’?” implored Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader. ”You want to take that option off the table? I don’t think so.”

Representative David E. Bonior, the Democratic whip, said: ”Some say the suffering Kosovars are not America’s responsibility. That the gang rapes, the burned villages, the mass graves are not our problem. We are a superpower at the peak of our prosperity and strength. What is America supposed to do? Look the other way?”

Not all the Democrats agreed.

”We cannot win peace through war,” said Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio. ”The failure of the bombing campaign is proof.”