Dozens of Republican members of the House of Representatives spent the month of August promising their constituents they would fight President Obama’s attempt to strike Syria without their approval, a quiet national campaign that may have helped lay the groundwork for the president’s surprising concession of power Saturday.
I spent much of the last month watching recorded videos and live streams of the “town hall” meetings that members of Congress of both parties traditionally hold in their districts during the August recess. I watched more than 48 hours of video in total, featuring nearly 50 members of Congress, most of them Republicans. And the overwhelming message for President Obama was clear: We want a vote on Syria.
In the town halls, in which members typically addressed conservative audiences, intervention appeared almost universally unpopular. Members of Congress who said they opposed intervening were met with loud applause.
“His authority to go to war does not come from the United Nations. It does not come from NATO, it does not come from any international organization, it comes from the United States Congress,” said Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine to a standing ovation, his second time hitting that applause line.
In a parking lot town hall in Arkansas 2nd district, Rep. Tim Griffin took a constituent’s question: Why hadn’t Congress approved the Syria mission with “our Navy in harms way.”
Griffin responded that he believes President Obama ought to get approval from Congress, using Libya as example he said “the president ought to follow the rules.”
“I don’t want to intervene at all,” said Kansas Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder said to loud applause at a town hall at a local high school. “But I certainly think I should be consulted, and the American people should be consulted before missiles start firing in their name.”
“Right now is the time to assert our responsibilities in the Constitution and make sure that whatever happens, Congress approves it,” said Texas Republican Rep. Pete Olson a constituent after a town hall who said intelligence on Syria chemical weapons use could be wrong.
“Attacking a sovereign country without authorization from Congress I think is simply wrong,” said Iowa Republican Rep. Tom Latham at a town hall last week.
Speaking at a town hall on a community college campus Florida Republican Rep. Rich Nugent drew applause from a crowd for saying he was opposed to Syria intervention.
“Tell me why this is in America’s best interest to get involved,” Nugent said. “Why should we spend a nickel? Why would we put any of our airmen, sailors, Marines and soldiers at risk?”
Some Democrats heard the same from their constituents. At a town hall in Cliffside, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell found an audience almost unanimously opposed to any U.S. action in Syria.
“We shouldn’t be involved in Syria whatsoever,” a constituent said to applause from the audience. “We are not the world police.”
“I understand what you’re saying. I understand we don’t want to get involved in other people’s problems,” Pascrell, who supports a U.S. military response to Syria said. “When chemical weapons are used, then it’s a whole different ballgame.”
In the local press, members of Congress also made clear they did not want to intervene without a voice in the matter.
“The founders I think were right, in our founding documents they said that the solemn decision on the use of force, it was the people’s representatives that had that responsibility,” New York Republican Rep. Chris Gibson said on PBS NY’s New York Now. “They need to go — they need to listen to their constituents and then they need to communicate in debate, then to have a vote on record on whether or not we are to use force.”
New York Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko said in the same segment that Congress should “play green light-red light here.” He added that “the powers of the purse rests with Congress.”
“The U.S. Constitution requires for military action that Congress have a role. Additionally, I think the American people need, through their elected representatives, to fully understand the consequences of any action in Syria,” South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson said repeatedly throughout August.
“Given the perceived hesitancy of the United Nations and some of America’s closest allies to support an attack on Syria, I urge the president to engage in no military action until Congress has reconvened in 10 days and has approved any military action to be taken, if any,” Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks told an NBC Alabama affiliate.
“It’s in the best interest of the president and Americans for President Obama to go to Congress to get support,” said fellow Alabama member Robert Aderholt in the same segment. “He cannot order military strikes without Congressional approval.”
“I think for the sake of the country, and the sake for representative government that we have the members of House of Representatives take their votes,” said progressive Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva to Tucson’s CBS affiliate.
Democratic Florida Rep. Kathy Castor said to a local station Bay News 9 “the Constitution and the war powers act requires it, that we see all the evidence and debate it and then authorize any use of force going forward.”
“If the president is going to fire at hostiles, he needs to convene us. I’m not saying a declaration of war, but authority from Congress to move forward,” said Kentucky Republican Rep. Brett Guthrie to a local affiliate of ABC News.
“The president will be so much better off, the country will be so much better off if he comes and has a fuller debate and get Congress’ agreement with taking action here, rather than a few conference calls which seems to kind of get the feel of a ‘check the box’ mentality,” Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry told PBS in Oklahoma.
Some members of Congress, speaking in town halls and local radio and TV interviews, flirted with the idea of impeaching the president should he take the country to war without the approval of the country’s legislative body.
“If a president on his authority and in direct contravention of the Constitution plunges our nation into war, if that’s not impeachable, what is,” asked California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock in an interview with a local Fox affiliate. “The Constitution does not require consultation. It does not require informing Congress. It requires Congress’ specific act to authorize a war.”
Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky speaking with a conservative Internet show host said: “I would like to see a vote on this before we take any action. We certainly need a vote,” adding in the “harsh fact of the matter is there aren’t enough votes of the matter in the Senate to affect an impeachment of the President.”
“A bill I put in said any president who bypasses the Congress to bomb another country without provocation, and this is actually in the Constitution, than they should be impeached,” said Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina to a local radio station.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune Republican Sen. Mike Lee “hinted” that President Obama could be impeached for attacking Syria without authorization, citing statement by Vice President Joe Biden as a Senator in 2008 saying just that.
Intervention in Syria has been shown to be overwhelming unpopular in the United States with some polls suggesting as few as 9% of Americans support the idea.