November 18, 2010 | Scripps Howard News Service
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: “(W)e 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 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 Barack 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 and Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week had an op-ed in the Washington Post headlined: “We Can't Delay This Treaty.”
On the one hand, sitting senators are paid to cast votes, not kick cans down the road. On the other hand, again, 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 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.)
It would be appropriate for senators-elect of both parties to send a letter to the White House and the Senate expressing their preferences. 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.
Nothing in Washington is ever simple so let me mention this complication: Some members of the Senate who are unenthusiastic about New START may be willing to vote for it anyway in the lame duck session. They would do this because Obama has made clear that, in exchange, he will support billions of dollars for the modernization of America's nuclear weapons. They reason that Obama is unlikely to fund and deploy a comprehensive missile defense system no matter what treaties are or are not 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, that's not a bad tradeoff.
The counter to that? The 2010 elections changed the political landscape. Voters, led by the Tea Party, made clear that their elected leaders will listen to them or pay a price. Most Americans want both a reliable and modern weapons arsenal, and defenses against any missiles that might be launched. Right now, we don't have either.
The United States has the technology to win any arms race and to counter all imaginable missile threats. What we do not have are political leaders who agree that, in the 21st century, the best way to promote peace is not for Americans to leave themselves vulnerable — the Cold War doctrine known as Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD — but for Americans to use their scientific prowess to render useless the weapons of those hostile to us.
This is a debate in which the Tea Party should participate. Another modest suggestion: Jim DeMint is the senator and Michele Bachmann the representative whom Tea Party members most admire. They should invite the Tea Party to this party.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org