Congress and the use of force in Syria

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 2.04.05 AM The president’s decision to ask Congress’s permission to use force against Syria reminds us how fast the agenda can change in Washington.  For the next two weeks, the president’s battle to prevail on House and Senate votes will dominate coverage of Washington.  The central question will be whether Obama is able to muster majorities in both chambers or whether the votes will devolve into familiar partisan lines (producing a narrow win in the Senate but failing in the House): Will members of Congress treat a military attack differently?  (A secondary question will be whether presidents regularly stand with one foot on the Oval Office desk while dialing up the Speaker of the House.  But I digress.)

Here, I draw from recent studies of Congress and war to offer a little perspective on how to think about these upcoming votes.  (This isn’t an exhaustive review of the literature,  but instead just a small sampling of some recent and relevant work.)

First, few scholars still believe the adage that “partisan politics stops at water’s edge.”   As Howell and Pevehouse argue in their 2007 book (While Dangers Gather) and summarize in recent work,

The partisan composition of Congress has historically been the decisive factor in determining whether lawmakers will oppose or acquiesce in presidential calls for war. From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, nearly every U.S. president has learned that members of Congress, and members of the opposition party in particular, are fully capable of interjecting their opinions about proposed and ongoing military ventures. When the opposition party holds a large number of seats or controls one or both chambers of Congress, members routinely challenge the president and step up oversight of foreign conflicts; when the legislative branch is dominated by the president’s party, it generally goes along with the White House.

Howell and Pevehouse’s focus on the partisan shape of congressional responses to presidential force requests helps to explain the partisan imbalance on House and Senate authorization votes in 1991 and 2002.  Even given the different contexts of the votes, Republicans nearly unanimously supported both authorizations, while a majority of Democrats opposed both (with the exception of Senate Democrats in 2002 who broke narrowly in favor).   The authors suggest that parties may define the national interest differently, and “issues of trust and access to information further fuel these partisan fires.”  Political parties will likely only unite in acute cases, such as the bipartisan rally in the wake of September 11th, 2001.  Especially in a polarized era, we might expect then that Obama will prevail in the Democratic Senate but face a much rockier road in the GOP House.  War politics in Congress might closely resemble domestic legislative battles.

Second, it’s worth pondering reports that these will be “votes of conscience,” with party leaders refusing to lobby their fellow partisans.  As Rep. Xavier Becerra, the chair of the Democratic Caucus argued yesterday, “Anytime you talk about the use of military force, I don’t believe that any member can be whipped into doing one thing or the other. It’s a vote of conscience and I think this is the supreme vote any member of Congress can take.”  If party leaders do not whip the votes, it will partially reflect calculation that their party’s brand name is not at stake.  Still, given past partisan patterns on authorization votes and the high stakes for President Obama, I suspect some Democratic party leaders will try to  smooth the way for rank and file to support the president—by amending the resolution to limit its scope, providing political cover with their own strong support and so on.  Politics and policy are always tightly intertwined when lawmakers decide their votes, leaving little room for votes of conscience.

Third, the impact of public opinion is worth pondering, as lawmakers start pointing to the unpopularity of punitive strikes against Syria to justify their opposition. Two findings from Adam Berinsky’s work (both in his book, In Time of War, and in a recent article) are relevant on this score.  First, as Berinsky shows, public opinion about war tends to be shaped by the same attitudes that mold views about domestic politics. Second, Berinsky shows the impact of elite views on the mass public’s views about war: “When political elites disagree as to the wisdom of intervention, the public divides as well. But when elites come to a common interpretation of a political reality, the public gives them great latitude to wage war.”  Two implications for  votes on Syria follow.  The battle of opinion in Washington will outweigh the importance of public opinion at large, but that battle will likely be infused with partisan overtones.   It would be reasonable to conclude from Berinsky’s work that lawmakers are unlikely to treat the issue of a military attack differently than other issues, reinforcing the difficulty Obama faces in securing House passage of a resolution.

The parallel between domestic and war politics is no doubt important.  But keep in mind that congressional divisions over intervention abroad today are not necessarily wholly partisan.  As Norm Ornstein notes, an ends against the middle coalition could emerge, with liberal anti-war Democrat making odd bedfellows with conservative, isolationist GOP.  Moreover, divisions within both parties are possible.  House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, voiced strong support last June for intervening in the Syrian conflict; given the implications for Iran’s power in the region, other supporters of Israel might follow Cantor’s lead.  Voting on a punitive strike against Syria might ultimately reflect party calculations, but other motivations may yet be in play.

7 Responses to Congress and the use of force in Syria

  1. Anthony September 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    My prediction is that in the house, a majority of Democrats will vote no and a majority of Republicans will vote yes. But not enough Republicans will vote yes and the matter will fail. In the Senate where everyone fancies himself or herself a national security expert, a majority of Demcrats and a large minority of Republcians will vote yes, so the measure will pass easily.

    The President will then say he has no support and after the next atrocity he (and the media) will blame the Republicans.

    (As an aside, while no pacifist I see no real US interest here in getting involved, and would say no).

  2. RobC September 2, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    Your discussion of the 1991 and 2002 authorization votes (“Republicans nearly unanimously supported both authorizations, while a majority of Democrats opposed both (with the exception of Senate Democrats in 2002 who broke narrowly in favor).”) is accurate, but let me suggest a slightly different formulation that’s also accurate: There was bipartisan support for the authorizations, especially in 2002. In 2002, 40% of House Democrats and 58% of Senate Democrats voted in favor; in 1991, 32% of House Democrats and 18% of Senate Democrats voted in favor.

    These days when lack of bipartisanship is often lamented, it will be interesting to see how people characterize bipartisan opposition to the use of force in Syria. My suspicion is that often when people say there’s too little bipartisanship, what they mean is there are too few Republicans who cross the aisle to support the Administration. Bipartisanship in the other direction–Democrats crossing the aisle to oppose the Administration–not only doesn’t get the same commendation, it generally doesn’t even get the descriptor “bipartisan.”

    • Sarah Binder September 3, 2013 at 12:35 am #

      Your point is well taken. Having said that, we end up in terminology territory…Congressional studies have for a long time reserved the term “bipartisan” to describe votes on which *majorities* of both parties vote alike. That’s the reason I hesitated to describe these votes (save the Senate 2002 vote) as bipartisan. But again, your point is well taken: these are not purely *partisan* votes given Democratic votes for the majority GOP position.

  3. mike rappeport September 2, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

    A question – has the Republican leadership in the House, and in particular the Speaker, said whether the Hastert rule will apply (i.e. no vote on the resolution unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it)? Either way, it raises some interesting issues.

    • Sarah Binder September 3, 2013 at 12:46 am #

      Good question. My guess is that Boehner doesn’t have the leeway to rely on the Hastert ‘rule’ to block the House from casting a vote. His own members put him in this quandary by insisting that Congress authorize any airstrikes against Syria.

      As if anticipating objections from rank and file, House GOP leadership aides are floating a justification for bringing a bill to the floor that might not have the support of a majority of the majority. Politico notes:

      “House GOP leaders aren’t whipping fellow Republicans, leadership aides say — a decision that could benefit both Boehner and Obama because it allows the speaker to sidestep the informal “Hastert Rule,” which holds that Republicans won’t bring a bill to the floor if it doesn’t have the support of a majority of their membership. Without a vote count, it would be hard to enforce the rule.”

      That’s a bit too clever by half, but suggests that House GOP leaders might be trying to diffuse potential criticism from their rank and file.

      Politico story here:

  4. JG September 3, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    I think the President’s public address of the Syrian crisis and a need for Congressional approval is important in two respects.

    For one, any intervention is not going to be cheap. Mobilizing navy vessels and launching cruise missiles costs money…something much of the Congressional GOP has been opposed to (with certain exceptions). As Machiavellian as it may sound, bringing Congress into the fold on this may be be a useful strategy in larger picture budget negotiations.

    Secondly, and this is more of a thought I have been having since the President requested that Congress provide input, assuming the President’s preference is to not come out of this situation with a loss (a domestic political loss) and assuming the House will vote down an authorization of force, could this request be a way of passing audience costs onto the House GOP ahead of a midterm election?

  5. Seth Masket September 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    Yeah, the foot on the desk is a problem. It’s almost as bad as Judy Garland leaning against that same desk while smoking. But I guess two-term presidents should be accorded some leniency.