Today in 2002: Congress approves the Iraq War Resolution

October 11, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryWe’re now in the second week of the federal government shutdown.

The shutdown occurred to begin with because Congress couldn’t agree on a budget before the first day of the 2014 federal fiscal year, October 1, 2013.

Although Congress today can’t seem to agree on something as simple as a yearly budget, our legislative branch overwhelmingly agreed to something far more contentious eleven years ago today – when the Senate approved the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 (more commonly known as the “Iraq War Resolution”).

The Iraq War Resolution gave President George W. Bush congressional approval “to use the Armed Forces of the United States” against Iraq.  More specifically, President Bush was authorized to use military force “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”

When the Senate passed the resolution – at 12:50 a.m. on October 11, 2002 – it was less than 12 hours after the House did (at 3:05 p.m. on October 10).  Despite the gravity of the actions that the resolution authorized the president to take (i.e. invade a sovereign nation, unilaterally, if necessary), Congress couldn’t seem to get the bill approved fast enough.

As further evidence of Congress’s strong agreement with the resolution, it passed both houses with wide margins: 296 to 133 in the House and 77 to 23 in the Senate. 

Of course, given the climate of the country at the time – just over a year after the devastating September 11 attacks – it’s not entirely surprising that Congress would so strongly fall in line behind the president on a purported issue of national security.

Since the Bush administration claimed that Iraq was not only “supporting and harboring” members of al Qaida (“an organization bearing responsibility for attacks on the United States…that occurred on September 11, 2001”), but also “continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, [and] actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability,” the potential political ramifications for any congressperson who voted against the resolution were too great to risk – especially less than a month before the 2002 midterm elections.  The late Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota was convinced that his vote against the resolution would cost him his job (in spite of this belief, however, at the time of his death about one week before the election, Wellstone was favored to win reelection).

In March of 2003, President Bush used this congressional authorization and directed the U.S. military to invade Iraq.  Dubbed, “Operation Freedom,” the military’s mission was “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.”  In April of 2005, the CIA’s final report after two years of investigations stated that no weapons of mass destruction could be located in Iraq.

The war’s current cost to U.S. taxpayers, according to a March 2013 estimate, is around $2 trillion; within the next four decades, that number could grow to over $6 trillion.

The current budget standoff that has seen the shutdown of the federal government will very likely not have anywhere near the financial impact of the Iraq War.  Yet, Congress still can’t seem to come to an agreement – even as the shutdown is costing $160 million a day.

Although in hindsight, Congress’s swiftness in passing the Iraq War Resolution may have been mistaken, it can still be admired as an instance in which Congress was actually able to accomplish something with some measure of efficiency – a skill that it apparently lacks today.