Making Congress Listen

There is growing agreement among antiwar activists that the Bush administration’s two main political vulnerabilities on Iraq are personnel issues and the cost of the war. To the extent that we agree on this, we need to devise strategies and tactics that aim at those vulnerabilities.

There is much good organizing on the first issue to celebrate, strengthen, and continue:

  • Growing counter-recruitment work and conscientious objector support;

  • Highlighting the "backdoor draft" abuse of the Reserves and National Guard and the toll it is taking on families and communities;

  • Other activities supporting the troops while opposing the war;

  • The recent votes in 49 Vermont town meetings in favor of ending the war;

  • The newly launched National Campaign of Nonviolent Resistance to support soldiers’ rights of conscience to refuse to fight in this war;

  • The growing opposition to the war by veterans and military families.

These are all powerful, positive developments. However, thus far we have not been adept at going after the money, which, of course, Congress needs to appropriate to continue the war.

Ralph Nader recently offered a very sound proposal for ratcheting up pressure on Congress on the war. I’d like to add a friendly amendment, to offer as specific targets the upcoming U.S. Senate votes on the war. There are likely to be at least two opportunities: the Supplemental Appropriations Bill, expected in early to mid-April, and the Defense Authorization Bill, which will probably come up in May.

We should be under no illusion we are going to "win" anytime soon a vote by Congress to demand that the U.S. get out of Iraq. Just as in the Vietnam War, we need to chip away at congressional support for the war. The U.S. finally got out of Vietnam in 1975, long after the largest antiwar rallies in Washington and elsewhere, because congressional leaders, under persistent constituent pressure, were making noise about cutting the funding for the war.

So we need to look for, and help create opportunities for, votes on amendments demanding more accountability from the Bush administration – specifically, amendments demanding a timetable or exit strategy.

Few senators are likely to vote against the supplemental appropriations bill (for fear of being slammed for not "supporting the troops"), but they might support an amendment calling for an exit strategy, timetable, or other steps toward withdrawal from Iraq. Other demands could be included in an amendment, such as an explicit renunciation of any permanent military bases in Iraq or control over Iraqi oil.

To be clear, this does not mean the antiwar movement should drop its demand to end the war and bring the troops home now. We should not back away from this message one bit; it needs to remain our central demand in order to keep up pressure on the administration and Congress.

However, there is a difference between a demand and a strategy for building political support to achieve that demand.

We need to be concerned that we have a nearly total political disconnect between the grassroots antiwar movement and Congress right now. Yes, the leadership void of the Democrats is a huge part of that problem, but so is the “pox on all their houses, we won’t bother to lower ourselves to deal with Congress” attitude of many in the movement.

We have a serious “if a tree falls in the forest but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” political problem right now. Over 800 cities and towns held antiwar rallies and vigils last weekend, which was fantastic. Let’s build on that momentum to ramp up pressure on Congress, particularly the Senate, where we have a much better chance of getting votes on antiwar amendments than we do in the House.

If every single organizer of the 800+ antiwar events made a commitment to follow up this week or next by organizing a delegation of leaders from local peace, religious, labor, veteran, and military family groups to go to home Senate offices (conveniently, Senators are on recess right now), we’d be in much better shape to influence the upcoming Senate votes and begin to turn the political tide against the war.

Every Senator, whether "on our side" in opposing the war or not, needs to hear from us: "Here are the hundreds of petition signatures or letters calling for an end to the war we gathered last Saturday, here are the press clippings we got, here is a list of towns in our state that had antiwar events – now we want to know what you are going to do about getting us out of Iraq, Senator.”

I agree with Nader’s approach to increasing pressure on members of Congress, and more aggressive nonviolent tactics can and should be employed, when appropriate, than just the traditional constituent sit-down meeting with the senator or her/his aides (though that can be a first step for those who have not already done so).

In Maine earlier this week, 35 peace activists peacefully "occupied" U.S. Rep. Tom Allen’s local office to protest his recent vote in favor of the supplemental appropriation for the war. They read the names of the over 1,500 dead American soldiers and an equivalent number of Iraqis who’ve died in the war. This took over four hours, and the action had quite an impact on the congressional staff members, who were clearly moved by the action.

Vigils, pickets, or other types of creative actions including civil disobedience can be organized at Senate offices just before the upcoming votes, especially if activists have not gotten satisfactory responses to earlier communications from their senators.

I agree with Ralph Nader – "The sooner we get serious about pressuring Congress, the sooner the occupation of Iraq will stop and our troops will come home." Congressional work is not by any means the most enjoyable part of antiwar organizing, but it is likely the most important thing we need to do to end the war.