In the famous formulation often attributed to George Washington, the U.S. Senate is the saucer designed to cool the drink before it becomes law. In Majority Leader Harry Reid’s rush to beat the looming expiration of the 111th Congress, the Senate has become the express lane to jam through changes in military rules, a giant spending bill and even an arms treaty—and all with virtually no deliberation. Why are Republicans putting up with it?
The lame duck Congress was supposed to limp out of town this Friday, but yesterday Mr. Reid announced that in the dwindling days before Christmas he plans to pass the bipartisan tax deal, the New Start arms treaty with Russia, the immigration Dream Act, a “lands bill,” and a bill to let gays serve openly in the military. Oh, and yesterday he also dropped on his colleagues a 1,924-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2011 that no one but a few Appropriators have read, if even they have.
Any one of these issues could warrant at least a week of debate if the Senate were playing its designated constitutional role. But the New Start pact and spending bill in particular deserve at least eight or nine legislative days of debate, with opportunities for Senators to educate the public and offer amendments. As it is, most Americans are preoccupied with their busy holiday lives and have no idea that the world’s greatest deliberative body isn’t deliberating at all.
The rush for New Start is a special affront to Senate prerogatives under the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote for ratification precisely to guarantee a considered debate. The Administration claims that failure to ratify the treaty in two weeks will offend the Russians, though the Russians have said they feel no such urgency. GOP leaders have given Mr. Reid dates in either January or February to bring the treaty to the floor, and upwards of a dozen Republicans seem to be leaning in favor of the pact.
At a minimum the GOP ought to insist on a debate that is long enough to clarify the U.S. understanding of the treaty. That’s especially important on missile defenses because the pact’s preamble includes the major blunder of re-linking offensive and defensive weapons. At the time the pact was negotiated, the Russians claimed this language meant they could leave the treaty if the U.S. developed new missile defenses. In remarks at the time, U.S. officials did not forcefully counter that claim.
The Obama Administration has since said the Russians are wrong, but the Senate must make this absolutely clear during the ratification debate. GOP Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl are preparing a formal “understanding” to accompany the treaty that would stipulate that specific future U.S. missile defense plans aren’t part of the deal.