WASHINGTON – Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and three colleagues want to turn around a congressional failure to take an active role in wartime policy, calling for a long overdue deliberative discussion on America’s future in Iraq.
In a news conference Wednesday, the group sought support for House Resolution 543 to provide “full and immediate debate” on U.S. policy in Iraq for up to 17 hours on the House floor. The resolution does not provide a timetable for troop withdrawal, the four stressed, but rather deliberative discussion they said Congress lacks.
Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, a former Marine who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam, said he saw soldiers band together when the sight and smell of death surrounded them. It is that same “integration of integrity” that Congress needs to examine U.S. actions in the Middle East, he said.
“This is not a judgment against the war effort,” Gilchrest said. “It’s an evaluation of where we go from here.”
Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, joined Gilchrest Wednesday at the Cannon House Office Building. Congress has a traditional and constitutional role of leadership in wartime, Jones said, but the House has spent little more than an hour debating U.S. policy in Iraq since the war began.
The congressmen decided to seek renewed House debate last spring, they said, after inadequate briefings with defense officials and private concerns of colleagues made them question Congress’ understanding of the Iraq situation.
Jones timed the resolution effort to fall before the two-week break in mid-April, an ideal period for constituents to press their case with members of Congress.
Although Gilchrest voted to authorize President Bush’s use of military action in Iraq in 2003, the congressman said now he is disappointed with the lack of discussion and planning before the invasion. He said he expected the same level of thoughtfulness as that preceding the first Iraq War under President George H.W. Bush. Congress needs to dig deeper than simply saying they support and pray for the troops, Gilchrest said.
So far 2,339 U.S. soldiers have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, including more than 40 in Maryland. Overseas military operations cost the United States roughly $10 billion per month, Abercrombie said, creating budget deficits in other areas.
Gilchrest and his colleagues pointed to a March USAToday/CNN/Gallup Poll, in which 67 percent of respondents said the president does not have “a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq,” as one reason the House should sign their resolution. They also cited reports that the administration mishandled intelligence and current tensions with Iran.
More than 80 representatives’ have signed the resolution, but 218 are needed to begin debate on the floor.
The news conference frequently took on a solemn tone. Gilchrest and his colleagues stood in front of stark images from the war, such as a Cincinnati boy at his father’s military funeral. Another photograph showed an American veteran sitting in a wheelchair. He had no arms or legs.
Jones said he wanted to face the “Lord my Savior” when he died and hear, “Walter, you are welcome because you sought the truth.”
As a veteran, Gilchrest said he can’t help but relate to the young soldiers of today. He does not think about the parallels all the time, but it’s “a part of your being.”
Gilchrest said he did not question Congress’ ability while he was in Vietnam, but began to ask questions when he came home and read the Pentagon Papers.
“We assumed,” he said, “that the government knew what it was doing.”