Repeat Offender

There are a number of disturbing revelations in Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, at least as he explained it Sunday on 60 Minutes. One is that President Bush told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that he wanted to focus on Iraq five days after the September 11 attacks. Another is that he decided to go to war without first consulting Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But just as alarming is that Bush misled Congress in July 2002 by spending $700 million lawmakers thought they had assigned to fight the war in Afghanistan, using it instead to plan the war against Iraq. As Woodward told Mike Wallace, “Some people are gonna look at a document called the Constitution, which says that no money will be drawn from the Treasury unless appropriated by Congress. Congress was totally in the dark on this.”

It's not the first time and you can bet it won't be the last. In 2003, the administration hid the estimate of the Medicare prescription-drug plan to ensure that conservative lawmakers didn't balk over the bill's cost and vote the plan down. On numerous other measures, such as the No Child Left Behind bill, the administration put its mouth one place and its spending priorities somewhere else. And twice this year Bush has installed judges who could not win Senate confirmation, thwarting the Senate's “advise and consent” role.

Of course, Bush has never prized Congress as a co-equal branch of government. Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly ignored questions from the General Accounting Office about his energy panel. Some lawmakers complained after 9-11 that they got more
information from news reports than from intelligence briefings. And the White House's stubbornness in stopping a committee hearing led Republican Representative Dan Burton to complain to USA Today in 2002, “This is not a monarchy.”

Congress comes back this week from its spring recess, so this is the perfect time for lawmakers to ask Bush about this latest revelation. While Democrats will likely lead the charge, Republicans should be steaming mad, too. Bush's decision to mislead Congress time and again should force lawmakers to demand that the president start treating them with honesty and respect.

Bush needs all the help he can get. Many of his legislative priorities, such as the energy bill, remain stalled. With the conventions and election day fast approaching, Congress has a narrow window in which to get its work done. Senator Edward Kennedy has promised to attach a raise in the minimum wage to each bill in the hope of getting it passed, and procedural maneuvers -- such as the increased use of the cloture vote by Senate Republicans -- are only adding to the feeling of gridlock on Capitol Hill. Rather than alienating lawmakers in such an environment, Bush should appeal to them to give him a record to run on.

Instead, he has given Democrats more ammunition to question, and likely block, parts of his agenda. In an April 7 speech on the Senate floor, Senator Robert Byrd said, “It is staggeringly clear that the administration did not understand the consequences of invading Iraq a year ago, and it is staggeringly clear that the administration has no effective plan to cope with the aftermath of the war and the functional collapse of Iraq.”

After Bush's prime-time press conference last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi noted that the United States has spent billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq, even though the administration said Iraq's oil reserves would cover the cost.

It is lawmakers' responsibility to ask tough questions of the president, especially as the death toll in Iraq continues to rise and important allies like Spain abandon the military effort. Members of Congress should remind voters that honest conversations about our role there would have been useful before the war began -- and that such discussions would have been possible if the administration had been honest about what it knew. One thing that voters don't like is feeling that they've been lied to. It didn't work for Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Voters should remind lawmakers that it won't work for George W. Bush, either.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.