Should a lame-duck Congress ratify a treaty with Russia? Should the Tea Party weigh in?


Clifford D. May

You don’t need to be in the Tea Party to believe that members of Congress ought to read and understand bills before signing them into law. I think it’s fair to say that in this month’s elections voters rejected the alternative approach, best articulated by soon-to-be-former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in regard to legislation designed to transform American health care: “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”

Now under consideration by the U.S. Senate is New START — a consequential strategic-nuclear-arms-limitation treaty with Russia. The Kremlin interprets it as restricting America’s ability to deploy missile defenses. Administration spokesmen say that’s not correct. To resolve this confusion, some senators have asked to review the negotiating record — the paper trail left by those who participated in the talks. The Obama administration has been unwilling to provide those documents, in effect asking members of the Senate to embrace the Pelosi approach: Vote for the treaty first, figure out what it means later.

During his Asia tour last week, President Obama said that ratification of New START is his top foreign-policy priority and that he wants to get it done in the lame-duck session of Congress. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week had an op-ed in the Washington Post headlined: “We Can’t Delay This Treaty.” Why the need for speed? In January, there will be more Republicans in the Senate as well as some Democrats who are likely to read the treaty — and the negotiating record if they can get a copy — with a skeptical eye.

On the one hand, sitting senators are paid to cast votes, not kick cans down the road. On the other hand, you probably don’t have to be a Tea Party member to think that for departing senators to ratify this treaty would be like fired executives deciding on a corporate merger just before turning in their keys to the executive bathroom. A treaty establishes international law and commits a nation to a solemn obligation. (At least it does for the U.S. For some other nations, not so much.)

A modest suggestion: It would be entirely appropriate for senators-elect of both parties to send a letter to the White House and the Senate expressing their wish that New START be considered by them and their peers in 2011. Let me nominate Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, to lead that effort.

Members of the House of Representatives don’t vote on treaties. Nevertheless, those congressmen most concerned with national security — for example, Armed Services Committee members Buck McKeon, Trent Franks, and Mike Turner — also might consider sharing their views on the relevance of the negotiating record and the benefits of putting off final deliberations for a couple of months.

Nothing in Washington is ever simple, so let me mention this complication: There are some members of the Senate who, though unenthusiastic about New START, may be willing to vote for it anyway in the lame-duck session. They would do this because President Obama has made clear that, in exchange, he will support billions of dollars for the modernization of America’s nuclear weapons along with the laboratories that oversee those weapons and the infrastructure that supports them. It is this arsenal, former CIA director and arms negotiator Jim Woolsey recently wrote, that provides “our ultimate guarantee of national security.”

Some national-security hawks reason that the Obama administration is unlikely to fund and deploy a comprehensive missile-defense system no matter what treaties are ratified. If approving New START means losing nothing not already lost on the defensive side, while achieving a goal that could not otherwise be achieved on the offensive side, is that not a good tradeoff?


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