Less than three months after leaving the U.S. Senate, Jim Webb is accusing Congress of abdicating its role of overseeing the nation's use of military power and its agreements with foreign leaders.
The legislative branch has increasingly allowed the past two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to take unilateral actions that should have required consultation with Congress, said Webb, who left Capitol Hill in January after deciding not to run for a second term.
In the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more power has shifted to the White House with little objection from Congress, Webb wrote, calling it "a breakdown of our constitutional process."
The Virginia Democrat says legislators care too much about party loyalty and not enough about challenging the presidential use of force overseas. Both parties are culpable, he said: Democrats today give Obama the same type of deference that Republicans accorded Bush during his two terms.
Today's Congress "is not the Congress, fiercely protective of its powers, that I dealt with regularly during the four years I spent as an assistant secretary of defense and as secretary of the Navy under Reagan," Webb wrote in a 3,900-word essay, "Congressional Abdication," that appeared recently in The National Interest.
He noted, for example, that as the White House makes greater use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out targeted killings abroad, there has been no significant Senate floor debate on their use.
It's not good, Webb said, that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., had to lead a 13-hour filibuster two weeks ago to block an unrelated nomination vote in order to challenge the Obama administration's use of lethal drone attacks. Paul and a handful of other senators said they wanted the White House to make clear that drones wouldn't be used to kill Americans at home.
"One of the real concerns that I have had is that we can't get these issues into the normal structural debate inside a place like the Senate," Webb said during a CSPAN interview Wednesday. "If you look at Rand Paul's filibuster... it seems over and over again, the only way that people can raise these issues inside the Senate is to question a nomination.... We need to have a full discussion on issues such as drones."
Instead of relying on more complete exchanges in floor debates to examine issues, he said, politicians resort to sound bites.
"It's so hard to have the right kind of debate when Twitter is the way we're having an argument. When you have to condense your thoughts to just a couple of hundred words," he said.
Former Congressman G. William Whitehurst, who served nine terms in the House and now teaches at Old Dominion University, said Webb's criticism is on target.
Legislative leaders are at fault, he said, for the waning influence of Congress and lack of floor debates on foreign affairs and military policy.
"Power flows into a vacuum. That's always the case, and that's the case here," said Whitehurst, a Republican who represented Virginia's 2nd Congressional District from 1969 to 1987.
"The giants are missing that were there in the old days. People like Sen. John Warner," Whitehurst said. "When you haven't got that kind of leadership, then the president is going to do damn well what he pleases."
As a senator, Webb was critical of what he considered presidential overreach on foreign affairs, most recently objecting to Obama's decision in 2011 to order airstrikes on the army of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Webb argued that U.S. military operations in Libya didn't meet the constitutional test that allows the president to independently use military force to protect U.S. citizens or national security.
Several others also objected to the airstrikes, including U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach.
Webb also took issue with the Bush administration's secretly negotiated Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraqi leaders in 2008. That agreement outlined the U.S. role in defending the Arab nation from "internal and external threats," and future cooperation in many other issues, he said.
Despite the heavy investment of American lives and money in Iraq, "Congress was not consulted in any meaningful way," Webb wrote, adding that, once the agreement was completed, the legislative branch didn't get a chance to debate its merits, nor did congressional leaders ask to do so.
"At bottom, what we have witnessed in these instances, as with many others, is a breakdown of our constitutional process," Webb wrote.
Webb said Congress needs a new War Powers Act to clarify congressional oversight.
"I think the country would be a lot healthier for it," he said.
"When it comes to the long-term commitments that our country makes in the international arena, ours can be a complicated and sometimes frustrating process. But our Founding Fathers deliberately placed checks and counterchecks into our constitutional system for exactly that purpose," he wrote.
Webb demurred when asked by a CSPAN correspondent if the recent article signals a return to politics.
"I'm just taking a year and thinking about that," he said. His successor is U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat elected in November.
In the meantime, the 67-year-old decorated Vietnam War veteran said, he's working as a consultant and writing an "early memoir" about growing up in a military family, serving in the Marine Corps and working as a congressional staffer during the Watergate era.
"This is not a book about the Senate."
Bill Bartel, 757-446-2398,firstname.lastname@example.org"