Congress and the Use of Force in Syria

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.

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About Sarah Binder 13 Articles

Affiliation: Brookings Institution and George Washington University

Sarah Binder is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University.

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