WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- An extraordinary three days of debate in the House of Representatives and an equally unusual Saturday session in the U.S. Senate led to a dispiriting and inconclusive result. Its real meaning was to demonstrate that the Republicans are too timid to prosecute the war on Iraq and the Democrats are too timid to end it.
At issue was the statement: "Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on Jan 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional combat troops to Iraq."
It passed in the House by 246 votes (including 17 Republicans) to 182 (including two Democrats). But it did not even get to the floor of the Senate for a vote because the Democrats could not muster the 60 votes required to cut off debate on whether or not to consider the resolution and move to a vote on the resolution itself.
Moreover, this was a non-binding resolution, which means that it is purely symbolic value. It could not constrain the president or his conduct of the war in any way. If Congress really wanted to end the war, they could do as they did in Vietnam by cutting off the funds to pay for it. Even in Vietnam, Congress waited until the U.S. troops had come home and the war had been "Vietnamized."
But the Democrats fear that a vote to cut funds would be condemned by their opponents as a vote against the troops, a vote that might unleash once again the familiar Republican charge that the wimpish Democrats are soft on national security.
Meanwhile the Republicans fear that a vote for the war, or at least a vote in support of the president's deployment of extra troops, will come back to haunt them at the next election when an electorate that is increasingly disenchanted with the war punishes candidates that are too closely associated with President Bush and his misadventure in Iraq. It was significant that five of the seven Republican senators who voted with the Democrats face re-election next year.
So the Senate decided in its Saturday session that it would not have a debate and eventually a vote on the non-binding resolution. It did so despite a vote of 56 to 34 in favor of having the debate, because under the venerable rules of the 100-seat Senate, 60 votes are needed to force the issue. So the great Senate drama of a Saturday session was all about whether or not they should even consider whether or not a purely symbolic resolution should even be addressed. It was a non-debate about a non-vote on a non-resolution that would anyway have no consequences.
To such nonsensical follies is a great republic reduced, which locked in the bloody aftermath of what seemed like a conventional war but has since become a civil war, a quagmire and counter-insurgency campaign for which American troops are neither trained nor equipped.
At times like this, it is useful to recall the analysis that the British political theorist and founder of The Economist magazine Walter Bagehot made about the monarchy in Victorian England, a time and place so steeped in the traditions of royalty that the very era was named after Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 until 1901.
Bagehot's great insight, and one that helps us to understand the kabuki show that the U.S. Congress has presented over Iraq, was to understand that there were two quite different roles for the monarch to perform, and he drew a clear distinction between the "useful" and the "decorative" functions.
The Queen's signature was in practice to enact bills passed by Parliament into law, for example, and her consent was in theory required to ratify the government's decisions over appointments to the judiciary (the Queen's bench), to the senior ranks of the military, to the House of Lords, and so on.
In reality, these were decisions taken by the government, which kept up the useful fiction that they were governing in the Queen's name. It is a fiction that continues to this day, and the formal title of Prime Minister Tony Blair is Her Majesty's First Lord of the Treasury.
This fiction is useful because it draws a clear line between the head of state and the head of government, roles that are confused in the American presidency. This means that while Britain can get rid of a prime minister without the slightest tremor affecting the ship of state, because the monarch guarantees continuity, in the United States it is a dreadful and a difficult process to get rid of the head of government because one is also tampering with the head of state. The American agony of Watergate, how to get rid of a crooked politician while preserving the dignity of the presidency, illustrates the problem.
We have all been reminded repeatedly by the Bush administration that the president is not just the head of state, but also the commander-in-chief. This has been stressed because it allows the president's supporters to allege that any criticism of the president's policies in Iraq undermines the commander-in-chief at a time of war and is thus both unpatriotic and undermines the troops.
But the U.S. Constitution, which is clear that the power to declare war and to conclude a peace treaty is a joint responsibility of both president and Congress, does require Congress to hold up its end of the bargain of governance, to cast meaningful votes that authorize the spending of real money to pay the troops and buy the ammunition required in a real war.
Congress has in effect said that it will authorize those funds, even though they do not like the president, his Iraq policy, nor the nature and effects of the war they are helping to continue. They are paid to take tough decisions over national policy, but they so lack the courage of their lack of convictions that they have decided to duck this one.
In short, they are failing the Bagehot test. They are being neither decorative nor are they being useful. And while it is their constitutional duty to be one of the checks and balances of a carefully crafted system that seeks to prevent any one of the three arms of government -- the executive, the legislature and the judiciary -- from having too much power, they have allowed themselves to be made impotent by checking and balancing against themselves. This is no way either to fight a war nor to end one.