In his 30 years in Congress, Howard Berman has established a reputation as a savvy Washington operator. That reputation has become his chief selling point now that he's fighting for his political life.
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 came by his hawkishness on Iraq honestly, out of concern for Israel's security. Long before it was fashionable, Berman was sounding the alarm about Saddam Hussein. Soon after coming to Congress in 1983, he introduced a bill to restore Iraq to the list of countries that supported terrorism.
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.
[“People should not put their head in the sand anymore,” Berman told Roll Call on Sept. 26. Two days later, he told Fox News, “I think a large number of Democrats will end up standing with the president on serious questions of national security, and for them, and — it will not become a serious political issue.”
Berman acted with Gephardt's tacit approval, but at the expense of Democratic leaders in the House and Senate who wanted a more restrictive resolution.
“Berman's discussions led to Gephardt's agreement with the administration on the terms of the resolution — talks that undercut the demands of” Spratt, Pelosi and Biden, states the Almanac of American Politics.
A draft resolution was presented to the International Relations Committee on Oct. 2. The language was expansive and unconditional. Sherman, a relatively junior member, offered an amendment to narrow the focus to the core reasons for going to war. Berman was unsparing in his disdain.
“If we would come to start looking at this text as lawyers and which amendment better defines our feelings about all this, we are defeating the bigger picture, which is to put together a political consensus in this country that says we stand with the administration,” Berman said.
Sherman offered an amendment that would have authorized the war only if Hussein refused a final round of weapons inspections. But he lacked Berman's clout, and Berman helped defeat the amendment. Berman's preferred approach passed out of the committee.
“The surest way to try and get the inspectors back in was to grant an unconditional authorization for the use of force,” Berman told the Weekly.
The Iraq skeptics still had one last rallying moment. Though he had been cut off at the knees, Spratt was still trying to put some limit on the president's warmaking power. On the House floor on Oct. 10, Spratt offered an amendment that would have required United Nations approval before the war could be launched. Sherman voted for it. Berman voted no, joining with 59 other Democrats and 210 Republicans in turning that amendment aside.
The House then passed the Iraq War resolution — the one Sherman had derided as a “blank check” — with a broad, bipartisan majority. Both Sherman and Berman voted yes.
“Much to my disappointment, when every middle choice was blocked, I ended up reluctantly thinking, 'Go with the president,'” Sherman told the Weekly.
In news reports on the vote, Berman was widely quoted as saying, “The idea of Saddam Hussein with a nuclear weapon is too horrifying to contemplate, too terrifying to tolerate.”
Both men had gone against their Democratic base. Around this time, Berman attended a town hall with San Fernando Valley Democrats, who gave him an earful. He then patiently explained why he believed it was necessary to go to war.
“Most of us didn't buy it,” said Roz Teller, a Berman constituent and a board member at the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley. “I was impressed he was willing to come and face a hositle audience.”
Later on, Teller said, “Sherman's the one who said he made a mistake much faster than Berman did.” (She supports Sherman, as does the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley.)
Sherman has actually been effusive in his apologies, sometimes bringing it up without being asked. Berman has been more grudging about it. He has acknowledged that his vote was a mistake, because no weapons of mass destruction were found. But at a debate in January, he suggested that history has yet to judge whether the war itself was a mistake.
And when Sherman criticized Berman for thwarting his amendment, Berman couldn't resist getting in a dig. “Maybe he doesn't have the skills to get his position through,” he said.