The Iraq Vote: Howard Berman's Most Momentous Achievement Is One He's Come to Regret
Berman's supporters like to note that he has a long list of bills to his name, on topics as diverse as foreign aid, intellectual property and immigration. His opponent in Tuesday's primary election, fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman, has authored only three bills that have become law, two of which renamed post offices.
And yet, Berman's most momentous legislative achievement is one that he has come to regret. In 2002, he played a crucial role in authorizing the Iraq War. Sherman hopes to make him pay for it.
"The White House wanted an absolute, clean, blank check," Sherman told the Weekly. "Berman was the guy on the Democratic side that helped that happen."
Berman argues that Sherman is now exaggerating his role in the Iraq vote. But he does concede that he, like a lot of others, had a bedrock belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
"I was just absolutely sure. I was absolutely wrong," Berman told the Weekly. "My vote was based on an assumption that wasn't true. That was a mistaken vote."
The Berman campaign would prefer not to revisit this episode. Instead they point to legislative achievements such as the False Claims Act of 1986, which cracked down on fraud in government contracting, and the funding for the $1 billion expansion of the 405 freeway.
Nevertheless, it is hard to find a more important issue in Berman's long career than the Iraq War. It was not just a vote. Berman played a key and under-appreciated role in securing passage of a resolution that gave President George W. Bush broad authority to use force.
Berman called for sanctions against Iraq in 1990, four months before Hussein invaded Kuwait. He was one of 86 House Democrats who voted for the Persian Gulf War. (Henry Waxman, his closest ally, voted no.) Following the Gulf War, inspectors found that Hussein's nuclear program was farther along than had previously been understood. That weighed heavily on Berman's thinking as President Bush began the march to war in the late summer of 2002.
In debate on the resolution, Berman said he believed "perhaps as an article of faith" that Hussein's arsenal was "worse than we know." "He has more than we can prove," Berman said at the time. "He is closer to achieving what he wants than we think."
From the start, it was clear that a substantial number of Democrats would join with the majority Republicans to support the use of force. Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, who had led opposition to the Gulf War, was planning to run for president in 2004, and was inclined to back the war this time around.
But the language was important. The Bush administration was asking for the broadest possible authority. Some leading Democrats were skeptical, and hoped to impose some constraints.
Rep. John Spratt, a hawkish South Carolina Democrat, was working with Nancy Pelosi, then the House Minority Whip, and Sen. Joe Biden, on a resolution that would limit the president's power. Spratt had been talking with Iraq skeptics, including retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and had developed reservations about a preemptive attack, according to his profile in the Almanac of American Politics.
In late September 2002, Berman split off from that group and organized a group of Democratic hawks to negotiate directly with the White House.