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:: By Laura Stuart

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Presidential power, congressional control

Political scientist William Howell examines how and when the legislative  branch can slow the march to war.


Despite worries about its waning influence, Congress still has clout, Howell says, especially when government is divided.

The immediate aftermath of September 11 would seem an inopportune time, admits political scientist William G. Howell, to start researching whether Congress influences a president’s decision to send troops to battle. After the attacks Congress was “mute,” he says, and remained so for years. Indeed, during the past half century the legislative branch “clearly has ceded lots of authority” to the executive branch, he says.

Yet there is plenty of evidence that Congress still plays a role in war, conclude Howell and coauthor Jon Pevehouse, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. In While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers, due out this summer from Princeton University Press, they argue that when it comes to “wars of choice,” Congress’s partisan composition influences whether the U.S. sends troops abroad, how likely the nation is to respond to a foreign crisis with force, and how long the decision to respond takes. Congress’s clout has limits: strategic interests, or treaties obligating the United States to intervene or steer clear, often propel a president to act, Howell says, “no matter what’s going on in Congress.” Absent such national promises, though, the legislature can wield substantial influence.

Howell expects the book’s findings to attract controversy. “Conventional wisdom suggests that presidential war powers are essentially boundless,” he says, “and most scholarship on the topic” devotes itself to lamenting “Congress’s abdication of its constitutional obligations.”Congress’s partisan composition is key, stresses Howell, an associate professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies who analyzed unilateral presidential powers in his first book, Power without Persuasion (Princeton University Press, 2003). When the president’s party controls Congress, it is less likely to check presidential actions. A Congress with significant opposition-party representation is more likely to temper a president’s plans.

Using statistical models, Howell examined how Congress has influenced a president’s decision to use force between 1945 and 2000. Controlling for other decision-making factors, he found that presidents used major force—deploying strategic nuclear units or multiple battalions, aircraft carriers or combat squadrons in response to a serious foreign crisis—“roughly 45 percent more often during periods of unified government than during periods of divided government.” Even without a majority, the number of seats belonging to a political party played a role.

Yet military action is only a small part of the picture, Howell points out. A president’s most basic decision in the face of a foreign crisis is whether to intervene at all. When Dangers Gather, he says, measures the probability that the United States will respond with force and demonstrates how Congress’s partisan composition affects that probability. Scouring 100,000 New York Times articles published between 1945 and 2000, Howell’s research assistants identified 15,000 situations that might merit a military response: coups, civil wars, border clashes, assassination attempts. The partisan composition of Congress had no measurable effect on intervention if an American ally, Soviet ally, or a U.S. trade partner was involved. But in conflicts in Somalia, Haiti, or Liberia, “partisan politics rise, and you really see Congress affecting things with wars of choice,” Howell says. In those cases, “a reasonably large increase,” 18 percent or more, “in the number of seats held by the president’s party can as much as double the probability that the U.S. responds militarily” within 30 days of the crisis. Conversely, President Bush is less likely to resort to war in Iran, Howell suggests, in the face of an oppositional Congress.

The 30-day cut-off is arbitrary, he says; slight tweaks of the deadline didn’t much change the results. He turned to duration models to see if Congress’s composition affects the amount of time before force is used. An 18-percent increase in oppositional seats, he discovered, extends by about 35 percent the time it takes to respond, and the reverse is equally true. A core congressional function “very much in the minds of the Founders,” Howell says, “was to slow the machinery of war.” He found that it does exactly that—provided that Congress includes “lots of partisan opponents.”

To understand how Congress wields its influence during the lead-up to war, Howell surveyed the range of congressional actions—hearings, investigations, nonbinding resolutions, public criticisms. In the final section of the book, he connected those activities to foreign-affairs media coverage and to public opinion. “There’s a whole literature that generally suggests that when the media covers war, they take their cues from political elites,” he says. “They index their news to what’s going on in Congress.” Testing that theory, Howell compared local television news coverage and congressional activity during the lead-up to the Iraq war, from September 17, 2002, to October 31, 2002, when Congress voted to authorize military action. Tracking TV coverage in 50 major markets, Howell reported that as debate rose in Congress, local TV coverage rose; after the vote, when the issue dropped off the congressional radar, it virtually disappeared from local TV news.

Further, he compared how different local coverage—reporting varies, he suggests, because media focus on their local representatives—affects public opinion. Two October 2002 surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicate that “those exposed to the most critical stories are 20 percent less likely to support the war” than those in markets airing the fewest critical stories.

Howell’s next project is an empirical study of whether, during wartime when presidents “press outward of the boundaries of their authorities,” they also exert greater influence in other foreign and domestic policy arenas. Does sending troops abroad increase a president’s ability to pass his legislative agenda or get his court nominees confirmed? Early results indicate otherwise, says Howell, pointing to the modern era’s three biggest military conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The first two “ruined presidencies,” he says. And the third is “in shambles.”