WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) indicated on Thursday that he may move to prevent President Barack Obama from deploying U.S. ground troops against the Islamic State by introducing a funding bill to limit how the money appropriated for the military campaign can be used.
The question of whether to deploy U.S. ground troops in Iraq is at the center of the congressional debate about Obama's recent request for an authorization for the use of force against the militant group. Republicans overwhelmingly support the use of American ground forces, while most Democrats believe the fight on the ground should be limited to local Iraqis and Syrians, with the assistance of U.S. trainers.
“Is there any debate between our two esteemed lawyers and general about the ability of Congress to use the purse to limit the use of ground troops?” Garamendi asked witnesses Benjamin Wittes, Robert Chesney and retired Gen. Jack Keane during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. “For example, no money for infantry brigades, armored brigades, artillery, etc. but perhaps money for Special Forces and the like? Is there any doubt about the ability of Congress to limit using the purse?”
The witnesses, who had all voiced their support for an authorization that does permit ground troops, agreed that Congress could use its power of the purse to restrict the president.
“No debate from me. I mean, you’ve done it before. The Congress stopped a war in Vietnam,” said Keane. “[Congress] no longer authorized our use of air power and that war ended. I think it’s the most powerful mechanism that you actually have.”
The precedent Keane referred to is the Case-Church Amendment, passed by Congress in June 1973, which cut off funds for military activity in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after a certain date without congressional approval. (The measure, however, was passed after the U.S. had already withdrawn its troops from Vietnam.)
Over 3,000 U.S. personnel are currently deployed to Iraq in non-combat roles. The Obama administration’s proposed authorization for the use of military force includes a prohibition on “enduring offensive ground operations.” Lawmakers opposed to sending U.S. ground troops have noted that this vague language presents no meaningful limitation on the president’s ability to deploy American soldiers.
“Given that, and given the debate which will go on forever about how you define ‘boots on the ground’ or limitations on what can actually be done," Garamendi said Thursday, "it just seems to me that we could simply say ‘You have the power to bomb, you have the money to bomb, you have the money to do special operations or all of the other things but there is no money for the brigades, infantry, artillery, et cetera.’ And I think that’s a good, clear way to limit it."
Garamendi also favors including geographic restrictions in the current AUMF proposal and rewriting the 2001 AUMF so that it only applies to military operations in Afghanistan. Since it was passed 13 years ago after the 9/11 attacks, the 2001 authorization has also served as the legal basis for military engagement in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Congress technically has the power to declare war, but has been largely stripped of this authority by the Obama administration in the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. and a coalition of partners have been bombing the militant group since August, with Obama claiming he has the legal authority to do so under Article II of the Constitution as well as the AUMFs from 2001 and 2002.
As such, Obama's recent request for a congressional authorization for war is seen as more of a political gesture than an acquiescence that lawmakers' approval is necessary. By pointing out that Congress can use its "power of the purse" to limit the president's war-fighting ability, Garamendi is attempting to indirectly reclaim Congress’s role as the body that oversees war.
Garamendi told The Huffington Post that he and other lawmakers have been discussing ways to limit the use of ground troops in Iraq for months. He noted that Congress may not have the constitutional authority to write an AUMF that prohibits ground troops, since the president, as commander in chief, has the right to conduct war as he sees necessary.
“The only real way Congress can restrict the deployment of troops is through the power of the purse,” he explained, adding, “This also gives Congress the opportunity to come back at any point in the future with the decision that, OK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are not providing ground troops, so we may have to.”
Garamendi, who served as deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior under former President Bill Clinton, noted that the Clinton administration was always mindful that spending money in ways not specifically appropriated by Congress was an impeachable offense.
The war against the Islamic State is currently funded by $5 billion from a part of the budget known as Overseas Contingency Operations, which covers the cost of emergencies and is not subject to budget caps. The White House's budget for fiscal year 2016 includes a $5.3 billion request for the military to continue the campaign. In December, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban estimated the cost of the war at $8.1 million per day.
It is far from certain that a push to prohibit funding for ground troops against the Islamic State would pass the Republican-controlled Congress. House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) said Thursday he thinks the president’s proposed AUMF is unacceptably restrictive on the topic of ground forces. He opened the hearing by saying, “We already put too many encumbrances on our troops in carrying out the missions they are assigned, in my opinion. So going into battle with a lawyer nearby to decide a particular action is enduring, or offensive or a ground combat operation seems problematic.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called for 10,000 troops to counter the militants. “An aerial campaign will not destroy them," he said. "You're going to need boots on the ground, not only in Iraq, but in Syria.”