Editorial June 20, 2014



As Iraq dissolves once again into sectarian violence we will see a Congress and an Administration divided on what to do, but if two amendments to HR 4870, the Defense appropriations bill, are indicators Congress will be significantly at odds with the Administration on this one.

Two amendments from Democrat Congresswomen Barbara Lee of California and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii would prohibit funds from being used for the purposes of conducting combat operations in Iraq. Lee’s amendment simply prohibits funds from being used for conducting combat operations in Iraq but was defeated. Hanabusa takes it a bit further prohibiting funds from being spent for troops in Iraq if even there is a chance the exercise will lead to “imminent involvement in hostilities…clearly indicated by the circumstances, or into Iraqi territory, airspace, or waters while equipped for combat in contravention of the congressional consultation and reporting requirements of sections 3 and 4 of such Resolution.” Her amendment passed by voice vote.

As opposing views are now showing up within the Parties, questions now being raised about the constitutionality of President Obama’s decision to send 300 advisers to Iraq. This should not be surprising when we look back over ten years at where and how this next major issue began.

The justifications for the war in Iraq, as we recall, was based on the assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and few will forget Colin Powell holding up a vial of something at the UN to demonstrate the WMD assertion. But before all of that the Bush Administration presented the need to preemptively strike Iraq along the lines of Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise Pascal, an 18th century mathematician and odds maker, when asked about belief in God came up with this: If you don’t believe in God and God exists you will surely burn in Hell when you die, and if you do believe you will surely go to Heaven. If you don’t believe and it turns out God does not exist you got off easy and if you do believe you probably missed out on a lot of fun in life. Pascal offered a caveat, though; you can’t pretend to believe in God when you don’t just to hedge against eternity in Hell or you will face that eternity in Hell.

President George W Bush presented a similar wager regarding Iraq; if Saddam Hussein has WMD and we don’t occupy that country we will burn in nuclear or biological hell. If he has and we do occupy, we can save ourselves from the danger. If he doesn’t have WMD and we occupy the country we have lost nothing but can be assured we are safe from his threat and if we don’t occupy we will live in uncertainty. Since it is obvious now that Bush knew there was not sufficient evidence to support the WMD assertion he must have been thinking there was another reason to occupy Iraq and that would be oil, particularly the light sweet crude near the surface in Kirkuk, Iraq. The evidence for that assumption came to light soon after the war ended and US companies moved into deals with Baghdad for that Kirkuk oil.

$1 trillion later and after losing thousands of US and Iraqi lives we see, as Rep Lee asserts, that the current situation in Iraq is sectarian and always was; we should not have gone in there in the first place. It cannot be fixed.

But we did. And with the blessing of Congress. And we ended up with what we probably always intended to have; access to that oil. Unfortunately that oil is in an area that Iraqi Kurds see as sovereign territory and is a target of the minority running the insurrection. And that is where we will get hurt on this if we don’t intervene but you have to ask, didn’t Bush see this coming? Was there no way to accomplish his agenda in a way that assured this was not just a short-term gain?

One would think, but then again this is what we do; we enter sovereign nations under one so-called justification or another to get the goods be it oil and gas in several South American countries, controlling the Panama Canal, fighting communism in Argentina, and we do it by supporting who we learn later are despots, monsters. We supported Saddam Hussein when Iraq was fighting Iran and the Russians.

So, what do we do here, now that we are in the next phase of the hat trick that got us into it? Do we have any responsibility to the Iraqis who supported our engagement there or who, after we left, felt they had their country back because of us? Do we write these people off as sectarian nuts and let go of the oil resources our troops fought for? Do we stand back and watch the sacrifices our troops made in the Iraq war come to nothing? As Colin Powell told George Bush about Occupying Iraq, “You will own it.”  We own it.

Senate Stories


Campaign Finance in 1919

“Despite the senator’s assertions that he knew nothing of illegal contributions and disbursements, massive evidence, gathered with the help of agents financed by Henry Ford, indicated otherwise.”

The 1918 election to fill one of Michigan’s U.S. Senate seats proved to be one of the most bitter and costly contests of that era. Its spending excesses prompted widespread calls for campaign finance reform.

To bolster his party’s slim Senate majority, President Woodrow Wilson convinced automaker Henry Ford to run in the Michigan Democratic senatorial primary. Trying to improve his chances of victory, the super-rich Ford also entered that state’s Republican primary. Although he lost the Republican contest to industrialist Truman Newberry, Ford captured the Democratic nomination and set out to crush Newberry in the general election. In Newberry, Ford had a tough opponent with similarly unlimited financial resources. Making effective use of campaign advertising, Newberry charged Ford with pacifism, anti-Semitism, and favoritism in his efforts to help his son, Edsel, avoid military service in the First World War.

Newberry narrowly defeated Ford, but charges that he had intimidated voters and violated campaign-spending laws limiting the amount of personal funds candidates could spend on their races clouded his claim to the seat.

The Senate provisionally seated him in May 1919, pending the outcome of an investigation. As that inquiry got underway, a federal grand jury indicted Newberry on several counts of campaign law violations. Despite the senator’s assertions that he knew nothing of illegal contributions and disbursements, massive evidence, gathered with the help of agents financed by Henry Ford, indicated otherwise. Found guilty on those charges in March 1920, Newberry launched an appeal that resulted in a May 1921 Supreme Court reversal of his conviction.

The Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections investigated the matter and conducted a recount of the general election ballots. The committee determined that the large amounts spent on Newberry’s behalf were not his own funds but were contributed by relatives and friends without his solicitation or knowledge. Consequently, it recommended that the Michigan senator retain his seat.

On January 12, 1922, a narrowly divided Senate affirmed that Newberry had been duly elected, but it nonetheless “severely condemned” his excessive campaign expenditures as “harmful to the honor and dignity of the Senate.” In the face of continuing controversy, Newberry resigned from the Senate later that year. The Newberry case led Congress in 1925 to enact a new Federal Corrupt Practices Act, but this statute proved ineffective in containing congressional campaign financial irregularities in the decades ahead.

Reference Items:

Butler, Anne M., and Wendy Wolff.  United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases, 1793-1990.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995.

1954: A New Senate Gavel

“During a heated, late-night debate in 1954, Nixon shattered the instrument.”

71_00001-2A visitor sitting in the Senate Chamber gallery on November 17, 1954, could have been excused for wondering what exactly was happening on the floor below. Just after 2 p.m., the Senate declared a recess. Instead of members heading away from the floor, many arrived and took their seats. Through the center doors appeared Majority Leader William Knowland and Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, followed by the vice president of India. The leaders guided their guest to the rostrum and introduced him to the vice president of the United States, Richard Nixon.

In his remarks, the Indian vice president noted that his recently independent nation had modeled its democratic institutions on those of the United States. As presiding officer of his nation’s upper house, he welcomed the opportunity to present to the Senate an instrument without which a presiding officer would be ineffectual—a gavel. He hoped the gavel would inspire senators to debate “with freedom from passion and prejudice.”

In replying, Vice President Nixon explained that the donated gavel would replace the Senate’s old gavel—a two-and-one-half-inch, hour-glass-shaped piece of ivory, which, he said, had begun “to come apart” recently. What Nixon failed to mention was that the gavel had begun “to come apart” thanks to his own heavy hand.

Vice President John Adams may have used that gavel in 1789, although he seems to have preferred the attention-getting device of tapping his pencil on a water glass. By the 1940s, the old gavel had begun to deteriorate; in 1952 the Senate had silver pieces attached to both ends to limit further damage. During a heated, late-night debate in 1954, Nixon shattered the instrument. Unable to find a replacement through commercial sources, the Senate turned to the embassy of India. The replacement gavel duplicated the original with the addition of a floral band carved around its center.

There may have been no more effective wielder of that legislative instrument than Charles Fairbanks, vice president from 1905 to 1909. According to one witness, “He wouldn’t hit it very hard, but when things started to get noisy on the floor, he’d lean over the desk and just tap-tap-tap a few times on the thin part of the desk. He used to say,” according to the observer, “it wasn’t loud noise that attracted the senators’ attention, it was just a different noise.”

Reference Items:

Bedini, Silvio.  “The Mace and the Gavel: Symbols of Government in America.”  Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 87 (1997): 63-70.

courtesy of Senate Historical Office.