January 31, 2005

January 31, 2005 | Commentary on Political Thought

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of January 31

Could conservative lawmakers wind up in a confrontation with President Bush on an issue concerning, of all things, national sovereignty? An issue that emerged during the confirmation hearing for Condoleezza Rice suggests that they might.

During her hearing, the committee chairman, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, asked Rice whether, as secretary of State, she would seek ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, a pact negotiated during the 1970s and rejected by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. The treaty "serves our national security interests, serves our economic interests," Rice replied. "And we very much want to see it go into force."

With those words, Rice set off a series of alarm bells in conservative quarters and among conservative lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill.

Briefly, the Law of the Sea Treaty emerged from the United Nations in 1982 and established a method for governing activities on, over and beneath the ocean's surface. The treaty regulates deep-sea mining and includes provisions that redistribute wealth derived from these activities to underdeveloped countries.

Peter Leitner of George Mason University summarized the conservative critique of the treaty in testimony before a congressional committee last year. Homing in on the treaty's creation of the International Seabed Authority, an international bureaucracy he characterized as "a seagoing government … composed of a legislature, an executive, a judiciary, a secretariat, and several powerful commissions," Leitner asserted that:

"The American people have little to gain and much to lose by acquiescing in and supporting the creation of a new super-government--the International Seabed Authority (ISA)--empowered to control access to the resources on and below the seabed, previously freely available to us under customary international law. … The existence of such a new force, dominated by nations hostile to American interests, is a fact that we must consciously reckon with and not capitulate in."

Treaty Provisions

Conservatives both on and off the Hill point to a number of ominous precedents in the treaty. Among other things, it: 1) vests the Seabed Authority with the power to impose fees on U.S. taxpayers when American firms remove resources from the seabed; 2) imposes constraints on U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities and the President's all-important Proliferation Security Initiative; and 3) claims the Seabed Authority's jurisdiction extends to commercial activities conducted onshore.

That last concern stems from the Authority's 2001 ruling that it had jurisdiction to decide Ireland's request for a restraining order in a case involving a nuclear reprocessing plant operated on British soil.

Three Senators Complain

In an extraordinary January 18 letter to the Government Accountability Office, three of the treaty's leading Republican opponents in the Senate, Oklahoma's Jim Inhofe, Arizona's Jon Kyl and Alabama's Jeff Sessions, asked the GAO to assess the treaty's potential impact "upon our ability to respond quickly and effectively to new security challenges like catastrophic terrorism, and prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists." The senators posed 35 additional questions to the GAO on many other potential areas of concern.

The deck may be stacked in favor of the treaty's ratification, with Vice President Cheney, Chairman Lugar, the oil industry and the Navy all purportedly lined up in support. But determined opposition from a handful of senators and conservative policy wonks in Washington halted the treaty's march to ratification last year. Bringing millions of conservative grassroots activists into the equation through a concerted education campaign, however, could counter all of the treaty's built-in advantages.

If conservatives outside of Washington take the time to study the treaty and its ramifications, the ratification battle could turn into a replay of the bruising battle over the Panama Canal Treaty a generation ago. Significantly, senators who harbor presidential aspirations will have to take a stand on an issue with the potential either to enrage or appeal to conservative primary voters in 2008.

Stay tuned.

Tsunami Aid vs. Spending Cut

Sometime this month, Congress will consider a relief package of up to $700 million for the victims of the tsunami that ravaged South Asia late last year. The decision to provide direct governmental aid to the victims is non-controversial, but the related question of whether to offset the cost by reducing other federal expenditures promises to provoke a heated debate.

Fiscal conservatives want the House to return to its practice of offsetting unanticipated, or "emergency," spending by cutting other, less essential programs. These House members appear poised to offer an amendment to the relief package that would re-establish this sound practice, either through an across-the-board cut of less than 1% or, alternatively, by requiring each agency head to review his budget and designate programs from which that agency's "donation" would come. That way, the contribution from the American government would come from previously appropriated funds and not force taxpayers--who have already contributed hundreds of millions of their own hard-earned dollars to private relief organizations--to contribute twice. 
 
Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events