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Reforming the military - 5 February 1993

For once, this talk by way of an apology and a correction and I hope it will be as enlightening to you as to me. I was talking last time about the uproar President Clinton had caused by declaring that he would issue an executive order, lifting the present long-existing ban on homosexuals in the armed services.

Now it may surprise some people, occasionally it surprises an incoming president, to discover that an American president is not a very powerful office. He can make himself powerful by the persuasion of his character, leadership, oratory, but the office itself is very much less powerful than that of a prime minister, in ways you're hearing much about right now.

I'm pretty sure your headlines contain many downright statements. Clinton will cut 10 more billion for defence, President Clinton plans energy tax and so on. These things are what he proposes. He doesn't make the laws or have the Congress do what a parliamentary party, with a handsome majority can do, which is to expect his programme, his policies to be more or less automatically passed. Congress will say how much more, if any, the defence budget will be cut and if the House of Representatives doesn't like his idea of a tax on energy, on natural gas, oil, depletion rates of petrol, whatever, in fact, if one committee of the House, the Appropriations Committee, doesn't like the idea, it's very unlikely to go to the floor of the House for a vote.

It's worth remembering in the next few months, when you'll be reading and hearing lots about President Clinton's policies, remember always that the president is Oliver Twist before Congressman Squeers. He proposes, Congress disposes. In foreign affairs he does have more independent power, except with treaties, which must have the consent of the Senate. He also has this gift of a presidential or executive order, which is not really an exercise in independent power, it's only the way the president can issue rules or regulations that help some law of Congress to be carried out.

Now about the homosexual issue which has roused and maintained a remarkably strong outpouring of emotion and opposition from just about half the population. As you know, the Constitution makes the president commander in chief of all the armed forces. So it was entirely proper of him to issue an executive order, fulfilling his campaign promise to lift the age-long ban on homosexuals of both sexes in the armed forces. He didn't issue it, it would have had to go in effect immediately because evidently he didn't guess the strength and intensity of feeling around the country against it.

Well you know, of course, what happened. The chiefs of staff to a man, were dead against lifting the ban, the Republican leadership and most Republicans in Congress were against it, so also quite a few Democrats, including, unfortunately, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Sam Nunn, who had always been thought of as Clinton's right hand man on military and defence measures.

Well, the outcry would not down and the president decided not to issue the order yet, but to have the armed forces stop routinely questioning recruits about their sexual preference and then to wait six months before putting the order into effect. The trouble here is that since Mr Clinton has not rescinded the order, it simply postpones the threat of a diktat for six months.

Now last time I said that if the president had had a long preliminary discussion with the chiefs of staff and with the party leaders in Congress, now I quote my ill-chosen words, this might have been an issue as painless as the stroke of the pen with which President Harry Truman, in 1948, integrated blacks into the armed forces. My memory, along with the memory of a lot of other old pundits, seers, codgers, failed me.

In 1948 President Truman announced that he intended to see that there would be an end to all-black units in the armed forces. They never had been integrated with white units in all previous wars, except curiously in the first, in the so-called Continental Army which fought Britain in the American War of Independence. There were about 5,000 blacks, all threaded into integrated units.

Well, in 1948, Harry Truman said it was time to integrate the armed forces. He did not declare his intention as an executive order. Anyway he had the wisdom not to set a date. He certainly didn't say, now, as of next Monday morning. But the outcry against Truman's proposed policy was every bit as loud and impulsive and frightened as the present outcry over homosexuals. How would white soldiers feel, eating and working side by side with blacks? Who, remember in 1948, did not do so in civilian life.

We had six more years to go till 1954, before the blinding Supreme Court decision, which abolished segregation in schools, eating places, railroads, theatres and so on. Until then, every town, village, crossroads, in the United States, had signs outside lavatories, over drinking fountains, swimming pools, theatre entrances, lunch counters – whites only or two signs, white and coloured.

So Truman's proposal was, if anything, much more of a general shock than Clinton's proposed executive order about homosexuals. But the same nervous questions sprang to the lips of the instant opponents. Could you imagine whites and coloureds working together, bunking together for heaven's sakes? How about the showers, the toilets and, in its special way of life, how readily would a white man want to lay down his life for a black? Mr Truman did not hound or harry Congress, he moved on to other business and bided his time and right throughout the Korean War, there were, I believe, no integrated units.

But very shortly after the landmark integration decision, in 1954, about the right of that little eight- year-old black girl to go to a neighbouring white school, which triggered the whole integration revolution, very shortly, without fuss and without uproar, it was announced by the none other, then Commander in Chief, President Eisenhower, who had lived all his military life with a segregated army, announced that from that moment on, all units of the army, marines, air force, would mix, integrate blacks and whites and so it's been ever since. And without much fuss, men of all colours have eaten and bunked and worked and died together.

It took six years from Truman's decision to reverse what for him had been the habits, the culture of a lifetime, it took six years from his announcement until the practice became fact. We have to wonder how long it will take Mr Clinton to get his way and will he? The Congress, the Senate anyway, has a handy weapon to use against executive orders it doesn't like. it's called the irrelevant amendment to a bill.

No sooner had Mr Clinton declared he would issue his executive order bringing homosexuals honourably and publicly into the armed services, than the Republican leader in the Senate began to wonder aloud if anyone had in mind an amendment to the first Clinton bill then pending before both houses. The bill was one Congress passed towards the end of the Bush regime, but President Bush had vetoed it. It was a Bill putting the United States in line with, I guess, every other industrialised democracy, granting workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in case of a family emergency, the birth of a child or other medical crisis.

In a money bill in the House, amendments have to bear a direct relation to the substance of the bill, but not in the Senate. In fact, what presidents have come to dread is a curse peculiar to the Senate, is its power to distort any bill the president wants with strings of amendments that have absolutely nothing to do with the point or purpose of the bill. For example, this time last week, the talk was lively and serious in the Senate that if Mr Clinton did issue his executive order about homosexuals, then the Republicans in the Senate would immediately get out a bill renewing the ban or better, they would not pass his Family Leave Bill unless it carried a rider reimposing the military ban on homosexuals. This is absolutely standard practice.

Well, tempers cooled during the week and the Republican leaders softened their protest, but had their way on the testy subject. The Senate version of the Family Leave Bill added an amending statement which approved the president's order to the defence department to study the homosexual issue, sanctioned full hearings by the Senate Armed Services Committee and it gave into the president on one point – stop asking recruits whether or not they are homosexuals. With this statement tacked on to the Family Leave Bill, the Bill was passed by both Houses, the House of Representatives grudgingly accepting the Senate's irrelevant amendment.

Well it's a big step forward in civilised government, it's a step way ahead of the old Senate filibuster, the cherished device for resisting a bill a minority thinks is being railroaded through. Unlike the House of Commons, where the Speaker can order an irrelevant speaker to discontinue his speech, the Senate allows the mobilising of a minority who will succeed each other in marathon speeches, in the hope of talking a bill to death or withdrawal. I well remember the memorable day when the late Senator Huey Long spent 16 hours, sometimes reading the telephone book, but mainly reviewing the varieties of Cajun cooking available in the restaurants in New Orleans and including the recital in loving detail of his mother's recipe for catfish stew.


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