If you've ever spent quality time trying to move an agenda through Congress, you know that moving an agenda isn't just about lobbying individual members. You need a “champion” for your issue. The champion introduces your bill. The champion recruits other offices to sign up. The champion introduces an amendment that carries the same idea as the bill and lobbies other members to vote for it. The champion circulates letters to other offices. The champion raises the profile of your issue in the media.
When Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold lost his bid for re-election, advocates working to end the war in Afghanistan lost their champion in the Senate. It was Feingold's office that introduced the bill, introduced the amendment, circulated the letter, led the lobbying of other offices and led the charge in the media.
Now California Sen. Barbara Boxer has reintroduced Feingold's bill requiring the president to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan – a timetable with an end date. So far, Sens. Dick Durbin, Tom Harkin, Kirsten Gillibrand and Sherrod Brown have signed on as co-sponsors of Senator Boxer's bill.
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The reintroduction of this bill is extremely timely and important, for two reasons.
First, the White House is currently debating how to follow through on the president's promise to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July. Will it be a mere token withdrawal, signifying nothing, as the Pentagon has demanded? Or will it be a “significant and sizable reduction” that sends a clear signal to everyone in Afghanistan and the United States that US troops are on their way out, as the Democratic Party has demanded?
In this context, it's very important for senators to speak up. And signing on to a bill that says that the president has to establish a timetable for US withdrawal that has an end date is an essential way to speak up.
When a senator signs on to a bill like the Boxer bill, that senator is basically communicating two things: first, “I am unhappy with the status quo and I think that the administration needs more pressure from people who think the way I do”; second, “If an amendment is introduced that contains the same basic idea as this bill, I am likely to vote for that amendment.”
This second function – stalking horse for an amendment – is the principal reason that the text of the bill matters. Otherwise, the senators are basically signing a piece of paper that says, “I am concerned about what the administration is doing and I think that the administration needs more pressure from people who think like me.”
Sometimes, in a situation like this, some folks who don't understand or haven't thought through Washington dynamics get hung up on how “strong” they think a bill is. But in so doing, they fundamentally misunderstand what really matters in the situation.
Getting co-sponsors for a bill like this is analogous to organizing a demonstration. Suppose you organize a demonstration (I organized one on Monday). After the demonstration, you see your friend who wasn't there. Your friend says, “How did the demonstration go?” You say, “It went great! There were 60 people there, two TV stations, a radio station and a newspaper.” You don't say, “It went great! The signs and chants were really militant.” What the signs and chants were are two of the least important things about the demonstration, in terms of its impact. What matters is: who was there?
Similarly, in a situation like this, the actual text of the bill is often one of the least important things about it. What matters is: Who signed it? What message did they communicate? Durbin is number two in the Senate leadership, close to President Obama. He signed the bill. That matters.
Furthermore, in this particular case, the question of an actual end date for the deployment of US troops in Afghanistan is absolutely crucial right now, because the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth about what is going to happen in 2014. On the one hand, the administration is saying that the United States is leaving. On the other hand, the United States is trying to negotiate a “Permanent Bases Agreement” with the government of Afghanistan, an agreement the United States hopes to conclude by July. But, as The New York Times pointed out, if the United States insists on keeping troops in Afghanistan past 2014, that is likely to scuttle peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, for whom the departure of foreign forces from the country is a red line in negotiations. So, the question of ending the war hinges crucially on setting a definite end date for the departure of US troops.
Thus, if you want to end the war in Afghanistan, an essential question to ask yourself is this: have my senators signed the Boxer bill?