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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lawrence O'Donnell, Rand Paul, and Constitutional Pretzel Logic on Libya

Last night Lawrence O'Donnell practiced an amazing bit of constitutional pretzel logic.  He fiercely (and rightfully) assailed one Republican lawmaker (Eric Cantor) for completely failing Constitution 101.  Cantor had made this completely buffoonish statement that a house bill would become law even without passage of the required senate companion bill, or the president's signature.  Only God knows what the hell Cantor thought he was talking about.  It was the lowest of low-hanging fruit for O'Donnell, but was an amusing segment and made for fun television.

But O'Donnell then jumped into constitutional fantasy-land himself in an attack on Republican Senator Rand Paul.  Paul is arguing that Obama's Libya military aggression lacks congressional authorization and is thus unconstitutional.  Congress has weighed in on this issue before, with the War Powers Resolution:

(c) Presidential executive power as Commander-in-Chief; limitation
The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

Paul's position, when viewed through the plain wording of the constitution and the War Powers Resolution is certainly reasonble.  O'Donnell responded to it last night by attacking Paul via Senate Resolution 85, which passed on March 1st by unanimous consent.  O'Donnell seems to think S. Res. 85 provides some form of congressional authorization for Obama's action in Libya.  It just doesn't.  It does nothing of the kind.

First, here's O'Donnell's segment:

Now, here is the Senate's own summary of what its bill actually does (bullets added):

  • Applauds the courage of the Libyan people in standing up against the dictatorship of Muammar Gadhafi and for demanding democratic reforms and respect for human and civil rights.
  • Condemns systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including attacks on protesters demanding democratic reforms.
  • Calls on Muammar Gadhafi to desist from further violence, recognize the Libyan people's demand for democratic change, resign his position, and permit a peaceful transition to democracy.
  • Welcomes the vote of the U.N. Security Council on resolution 1970 referring the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC), imposing an arms embargo on the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, freezing Gadhafi family assets, and banning international travel by Gadhafi, members of his family, and senior advisors.
  • Urges: (1) the Gadhafi regime to abide by Security Council Resolution 1970, and (2) the Security Council to take such further action to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.
  • Welcomes: (1) the African Union's (AU) condemnation of the disproportionate use of force in Libya and urges the AU to take action to address the human rights crisis in Libya, (2) the United Nations Human Rights Council's (UNHRC) decision to recommend Libya's suspension from the Council and urges the U.N. General Assembly to vote to suspend Libya's rights of Council, (3) Secretary of State Clinton's attendance at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva and urges the Council's assumption of a country mandate for Libya that employs a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Libya, and (4) U.S. outreach to Libyan opposition figures in support of an orderly transition to a democratic government in Libya.

Nowhere does this bill authorize or direct the US President to do anything militarily.  Yes, it does encourage the UN Security council to find ways to protect Libyan civilians. No, it doesn't authorize the President to do so with US military forces.

If O'Donnell has any questions or doubts about this, he should contact any of S. Res. 85's sponsors or their staffers, and ask them if the resolution in any way comprises Congressional authorization for Libya.   That would actually be useful reporting.

I dare you, Lawrence.  There's got to be more to a MSNBC news gig than comical low-hanging Cantor-fruit in one hand, and partisan hackery on the other.  By all means defend Obama's action if you want, but please bring a better game than this.


If this would be of any help to O'Donnell, here's what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered, in response to somewhat warm Congressional questioning  about whether Obama's Libya involvement complied with constitutional requirements:

Several times during the hearing Gates repeated a one-line defense of Obama's actions.
"The President's compliance with the War Powers Act has been consistent with the actions taken by all of his predecessors -- both Democrats and Republicans" since the law was passed in 1973, Gates said.

In plainer words, Gates proposes that this administration is no more guilty of being out of constitutional compliance than previous ones.  That is no defense at all.   O'Donnell might want to bear in mind that Rand Paul was not at this House committee hearing, and that the questions came from both Democrats and Republicans.

UPDATE 2 (4/1/11)

O'Donnell revisited this story again this evening.  All I can say is that he is becoming slightly deranged on this topic.   Here's a good post on this from Andrew Sullivan.


  1. "Urges: (1) the Gadhafi regime to abide by Security Council Resolution 1970, and (2) the Security Council to take such further action to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory"

    Rand Paul has said that imposing a no fly zone is an act of war. However it was misleading for this video to say that Rand cast a yes vote for this resolution which is not the case. The Bill was passed by voice vote alone where it would take 1 person to send it to the floor to debate.

    I have called Rand Paul's office to clarify why he didn't put a hold on this resolution and I was told that the resolution was snuck through while Rand Paul wasn't in the room to vote. However if I understand the proccedure correctly Paul's office would have been notified of the resolution before the day started and that he wouldn't nessicarily have to be in the room to put it on hold.

    I would like some more clarification from paul on this matter.

  2. I think it's fine to ask Senators to state their positions on Libya, and suggested that above. But O'Donnell's strange obsession with Rand Paul on this is getting a tad bizarre, and I smell hackery. For example, Bernie Sanders was a cosponsor of the bill, but appears not to favor our current involvement in Libya. Jim Webb has also stated misgivings, specifically about Obama's overreach on this.

    Why isn't O'Donnell assailing Sanders and Webb? Why just Rand Paul?

  3. I guess O'Donnell is a hack. I thought MSNBC had some sort of journalistic standards. This stuff is just plain nasty, quite misleading, inaacurate on several points, and truly provides no service to anyone. O'Donnell, and MSNBC to some degree, has lost credibility and my respect.

  4. Hello Rick Honer,

    I still watch O'Donnell, and find some of his coverage useful. And obviously Rachel Maddow's work is very good.