Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will do President Obama’s bidding, starting debate on ratification of the “New START” arms control treaty today, in the waning hours of Congress’s lame-duck session. While the specifics of how he will proceed remain murky, his general strategy is clear.
Reid’s decision will push the Senate toward Constitutional irrelevancy, diminishing its role in the treaty-making process into little more than an afterthought. More is at stake here than just the arguments, pro and con, over New START. The Senate’s role as an institution is about to be diminished, perhaps permanently. Whatever their views on New START, Senators must think long and hard about their Constitutional obligations before they allow this to happen.
It is entirely understandable why President Obama wants to march through the Senate like General Sherman through Georgia. Why Senators would allow their own institution to be so casually marginalized, however, is much harder to comprehend. There is simply no precedent for Senate approval of so consequential a treaty in the cramped, hurried environment of a lame-duck session, and for good Constitutional reasons.
Senator Jon Kyl and others have worked tenaciously to resolve a number of important questions about New START. For example, Kyl has contested the Obama administration on its plans, or lack thereof, for national missile defense. He has sought to understand why, as a practical political matter, even if not in explicit treaty language, Obama has surrendered the prospects of moving forward robustly on homeland missile defenses to a Russian veto.
Similarly, Kyl has pressed for more funding for our nuclear-weapons programs, to ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile, which has suffered gravely in recent years from inadequate resources and a grossly inadequate modernization program.
And Kyl has sought far more information than President Obama has been willing to provide on the meaning and implications of many other crucial New START provisions, which have never been fully explained to the Senate or the American people.
If the Obama administration were truly confident in the merits of its arguments, it would not fear a debate when the new Congress convenes in January. But its obsession with frog-marching the Senate to a vote in December reveals its gnawing insecurity that New START cannot withstand full scrutiny in the light of a real Senate debate, as opposed to the theatrics now about to unfold.
There is simply no possibility for an appropriate debate, let alone adequate consideration of key amendments to the treaty or its accompanying resolution of ratification.
The circumstances are plain. Prior to the November 2 election, New START proceeded almost entirely beneath the public radar screen. Since the November midterm elections, with its devastating results for President Obama, Congress has been locked in debate over tax and spending issues. The entire attention of members of Congress has been on this legislation, and a bucket list of other controversial measures: immigration, repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and a host of other priorities. The general public is far more interested in the upcoming holiday season, and almost certainly wishes the current Congress would simply adjourn.
New START has been an afterthought. Until now.
Supporters of New START contend there is little public interest in the treaty, and therefore no harm in considering it late at night or in the on-gain-off-again fashion of dentists shuttling between patients in various office dental chairs. But, as with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s iconic remark about the health care bill, once people realize what is in New START, they will be acutely interested in its detrimental impact on U.S. national security. Of course, once the treaty is ratified, it will be too late.
That may be exactly what its supporters have in mind. They also advance the brute political argument that they have more than the required 67 Senators prepared to vote for ratification, so there is no reason to wait until the next Congress. Their vote count may or may not be accurate, but their argument proves too much. If valid, why bother with a Senate debate at all? Why trouble Senators to come to Washington? Why not just stay home and vote over the Internet, thus saving everyone the time and trouble of contentious floor debate and amendment?
Even Senators inclined to support New START should weigh very carefully the implications of rushing to ratification. Much more is at stake than merely whether the Senate ratifies this particular treaty. Senators seriously interested in their cherished institution -- and particularly those Senators retiring in just a few weeks -- need to think about the long sweep of Constitutional history before they bend their knee and vote on New START this month.
A delay may or may not make it more difficult for the Obama administration to gain ratification of the treaty. We simply do not know. But we do know that a partial, incomplete, poorly prepared and utterly inadequate debate now will have permanent implications for the Senate role in the treaty process. Senators need to look at the portraits and sculptures adorning the hallways and offices of the Capitol building before they decide to proceed with New START.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, is a Fox News contributor and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).