When Do the Rules Apply?

It took barely a month into Joe Biden’s presidency for him to boot the U.S. war machine back up, authorizing airstrikes on Syria on February 25. The administration claimed the attack was self-defense against Iranian-backed forces in the region.

Biden had campaigned on revitalizing U.S.-Iran relations by rejoining the nuclear deal that Trump had walked away from. Yet, like so many presidents before him, he reached for the military option rather than a diplomatic one.

This isn’t surprising. But it is illegal.

The Pentagon claimed that the strikes were retaliation for attacks by an Iraqi Shiite militia against American and coalition personnel. The administration apparently judged that a military response in Iraq would be politically complicated, so they struck an alleged militia base in Syria instead.

By international standards and common decency, it is unlawful to “send a message” to a third party by carrying out military attacks in a country that is not attacking you just because it’s convenient.

By domestic standards, in our system of checks and balances, the president does not have the authorization to use military force without the consent of Congress. But George W. Bush and every president after him has used the 2001 Authorization of Military Force and 2002 Iraq War Authorization as a blank check to bypass the Congressional War Powers Act and drop bombs freely.

A few lawmakers did speak out. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Chris Murphy (D-CT), along with House progressives like Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Rho Khanna (D-CA) called the administration out for the unexpected escalation. But most lawmakers remained silent.

When it comes to international relations, it seems the rules don’t apply. But when we look at the rules of engagement at home, it really adds salt to the wound.

In the same week that the rules went out the window to bomb Syria, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the Senate couldn’t pass a provision raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour through the reconciliation process.

What Democrats could have done, if they really wanted to pass a living wage, is rewrite the language in the bill so that it meets the right criteria for the reconciliation process. Or the Biden administration could have tried to overrule the decision.

Under George W. Bush, Republicans actually fired the Senate parliamentarian who ruled against passing Bush’s tax cuts under reconciliation — and then passed them in a 50-50 Senate much like today’s.

Instead, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was “disappointed” but “respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process.” Basically, he threw up his hands and said sorry, but rules are rules.

When it comes to life-saving policy for millions of working families in the United States, there was no attempt from Biden to justify a workaround. But when it comes to life-destroying air strikes that only serve to enrich weapons manufacturers and destabilize the region, the rules went out the window.

People overcame great challenges to put this administration, and this Senate, in power. If they’re not moved by morals, I hope they’ll be moved by politics to rewrite these rules. We shouldn’t be bombing people abroad while families at home struggle to survive.