September 1, 2016

September 1, 2016 | Lecture on Political Thought

Recovering the Senate’s Rightful Role in Foreign Affairs

For President Obama, the climate conference in Paris is an opportunity to continue his pursuit of his ambition to “fundamentally transform” the United States of America. This plan is not just ambitious, but also deeply cynical. At its core, it is an attempt to enshrine in an international agreement President Obama’s unilateral environmental regulatory regime, which remains deeply unpopular among the American people. For nearly seven years, the President has failed to secure approval of his energy regulatory agenda at home. Now he is pushing for an endorsement from U.N. bureaucrats to give his regulations—and the unprecedented expansion of executive power they represent—the credibility and sanction they did not secure through the democratic process. The Senate needs to find new ways to re-assert its constitutional prerogatives and rightful role in the process of making American commitments to foreign nations. When the United States makes major, binding international commitments, they must always be subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

Key Points

  1. The objective of the Paris climate conference is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.”
  2. No one—not even President Obama—seriously thinks Paris will produce an agreement that could have any meaningful effect on global atmospheric conditions in the next 50 years.
  3. The unilateral process by which President Obama plans to commit the U.S. to a new climate agreement is another step in the transformation of the way we make international commitments.
  4. Treaties are like “contracts with foreign nations,” as Alexander Hamilton explained, and only legislative consent can grant the broad political consensus necessary to ensure that the United States lives up to the terms of the agreement
  5. The House and Senate should pass a joint resolution that an agreement of the cost and legal character contemplated by the Obama Administration in Paris should be submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent.

I’m honored to be here today to talk about the new climate-change deal President Obama is pursuing, the dangers it poses to the American energy sector and to U.S. sovereignty, and what Congress can and should do about it.

Conference of Parties

In a few weeks Paris will host the latest round of climate-change negotiations—what’s called the “Conference of Parties”—under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. As most of you know, the objective of the U.N. Framework Convention is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.”[1] It was negotiated, signed by President Bush, and ratified by the United States Senate in 1992.

Paris will be the twenty-first Conference of Parties in 23 years. But don’t get the wrong idea: being a U.N. climate negotiator is not some part-time gig. There’s much more to the Framework Convention than the Conference of Parties. Each year, they host countless events across the globe. In 2015 alone, they had meetings in over a dozen countries, including Switzerland, Thailand, and Chile. And yet the Convention has precious little to show for its interminable gatherings—except for maybe the world’s largest collection of frequent-flyer miles.

Most of the negotiations—at least those that don’t collapse into stalemate—produce little more than a series of lofty aspirations, proclamations of vague principles, and promises to come to an agreement at some later date. But Paris—we’re told—will be different.

“Paris Is Final”

This summer the European Union’s commissioner for climate action said there is no “plan B” for Paris. He confidently declared, “[These are] not just ongoing U.N. discussions. Paris is final.”[2] Personally, I’m skeptical that this is the last we’ll hear of U.N. climate talks. You think bureaucratic inertia is bad in Washington—imagine if all our dull federal buildings were replaced with the exotic destinations that host U.N. climate negotiations!

But, in at least one important respect, Paris will be final. It will be President Obama’s last, best hope to fulfill that infamously lofty aspiration of his 2008 campaign.

I’m not talking about his pledge to usher in, as he put it, “the moment when the rise of the oceans [begins] to slow and our planet [begins] to heal.”[3] No one—not even President Obama—seriously thinks Paris will produce an agreement that could have any meaningful effect on global atmospheric conditions in the next 50 years. Accomplishing that would require a universal agreement obligating all countries to make significant, economy-wide emissions cuts.

But, for the nations whose economies increasingly depend on high-emission energy sources like coal—countries like India and China—this is not a tolerable outcome. India’s Prime Minister spoke for much of the developing world when he said: “While the developed countries should have targets for emission cuts, developing countries should work on targets of encouragement.”[4]

Obama, Unilateralism, and the Real Goal of Paris

If the goal of Paris is to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, “targets of encouragement” simply won’t cut it. But, of course, that’s not the goal of Paris—at least not for the Obama Administration. No. For President Obama, Paris, above all, is an opportunity to continue his pursuit of that other lofty ambition from 2008—his goal of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” In particular, the President hopes to produce an agreement in Paris that will fundamentally transform America’s energy and transportation sectors.

Earlier this year, several countries that will attend the Paris talks submitted to the Conference of Parties a document outlining the “contributions” they intend to make to the global climate-change effort. The U.S. plan pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions, across the entire economy, by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels. This is an extremely ambitious target.

The regulations required to achieve it would take decades to implement—and probably a host of new international monitoring and reporting mechanisms. They would also impose hundreds of billions of dollars in costs on the American economy. But the Obama Administration’s plan is not just ambitious. It’s also deeply cynical—because, at its core, the plan is an attempt to enshrine in an international agreement President Obama’s unilateral environmental regulatory regime, which remains deeply unpopular among the American people.

This has been one of the President’s longstanding goals. We often forget that no one expected his first signature domestic policy achievement to be Obamacare—it was supposed to be an energy bill establishing a national limit on emissions. In the summer of 2009, President Obama hailed the cap-and-trade legislation that was moving through Congress, calling it “a bold and necessary step”[5] toward strictly regulating the U.S. energy sector. The bill was certainly “bold”—I’ll give him that. So bold, in fact, that it was essentially laughed out of the Senate.

But was the legislation “necessary” to impose emissions requirements on energy producers? No—at least not according to President Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency. Shortly after the American people and their elected representatives refused to assent to a law that would have empowered unelected bureaucrats to micromanage energy producers, the EPA began reinterpreting old laws to do precisely that.

The flurry of unilateral administrative actions culminated in the President’s Clean Power Plan—a set of stringent, costly, and unpopular EPA regulations that will undoubtedly face opposition in the courts, in Congress, and by future presidents. And it’s precisely that uncertainty—that sneaking suspicion that his transformation of America’s environmental laws may not be permanent—that explains President Obama’s strategy in Paris.

When you look at the fine print of the U.S. contribution plan, you see that a significant proportion of the 26-28 percent emissions reductions are expected to come from existing regulations, especially the Clean Power Plan. So for nearly seven years President Obama has failed to secure approval of his energy regulatory agenda at home. And now, with just one year left in office, he’s hoping an endorsement from U.N. bureaucrats will give his regulations—and the unprecedented expansion of executive power they represent—the credibility and sanction he was unable to secure through the democratic process.

Transformation of the Treaty Process

But it’s not just the American energy sector that could be fundamentally transformed if the President is able to produce the agreement he seeks in Paris. The unilateral process by which President Obama plans to commit the United States to a new climate agreement—a process designed explicitly to bypass the Senate and avoid seeking its advice and consent—is another step in the fundamental transformation of the way we make international commitments.

Pursuing a deal in Paris as an executive agreement instead of a treaty would not only violate the plain meaning of the U.N. Convention; it would also defy the historical understanding of the constitutional limitations on the executive in foreign affairs—limitations that exist to safeguard the sovereignty of the American people.

In an excellent paper recently published by Heritage, Steve Groves examines what will likely be President Obama’s strategy for avoiding Senate scrutiny of whatever deal is reached in Paris.[6] In the paper—which I highly recommend to everyone—Steve pulls together media reports and statements from White House officials to make a compelling case that the Obama Administration will try to cobble together what they’re calling a “hybrid” agreement. Modeled on the plan submitted by New Zealand, a hybrid agreement would include a combination of legally binding procedural commitments and politically binding targets and timetables for reducing emissions. The theory is that, so long as the emission-reduction targets are only politically binding, the President would be under no obligation to submit them to the Senate.

Problems with the “Hybrid-Agreement” Theory

The hybrid-agreement theory is clever, to be sure. But it flatly contradicts the understanding of the Framework Convention that has been universally accepted since its ratification in 1992. This distinction—between either politically or legally binding emission-reduction targets—has never been a meaningful one in the history of the Convention. Targets and timetables of any legal character have always been understood to require the Senate’s advice and consent.

In fact, just to clarify the point, in 1992 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report explaining the terms on which they offered their approval to the Framework Convention. And one of those terms highlighted this notion of the Senate’s rightful role in the future operation of the Convention. The Committee clarified that “a decision by the Conference of the Parties,” or a “decision by the executive branch,” to adopt targets and timetables—legally binding or not—“would have to be submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent.”[7]

At the time, there was absolutely nothing controversial about these statements. The George H.W. Bush Administration accepted them without dispute, because they reflected the long-standing view of the Senate’s distinct and rightful role in the process of making international agreements.

That role is expressed in the treaty clause in Article II of the Constitution. It states, “The President... shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur...”

Treaties as “Contracts with Foreign Nations”

For a document that is premised on the strict separation of powers, the explicit joining of powers in the treaty clause stands out as somewhat unusual. But, as Alexander Hamilton explained in The Federalist, there is a “peculiar propriety” in sharing the treaty power between the executive and the Senate. For Hamilton, the treaty clause is “one of the best digested and most unexceptionable parts of the [Constitution],” because it is consistent with the nature of treaties and the unique attributes of the presidency and the Senate.[8] Treaties are little more than “contracts with foreign nations,” according to Hamilton.[9] And, given the nature of international affairs, they often need to be negotiated swiftly and covertly. Treaties carry the “the force of law,” but unlike domestic laws, they derive their force from “obligations of good faith.”[10]

Thanks to its unique capacity for “secrecy and dispatch,” the executive is best equipped to manage these foreign negotiations. But only legislative consent—and the kind of deliberation available in the Senate—can grant the broad political consensus necessary to ensure that the United States lives up to the terms of the agreement.

Hamilton’s explanation of the treaty power laid the groundwork for the traditional American understanding of the factors that distinguish treaties from other types of international agreements. Those factors include: whether it has the force of law, or has the potential to influence domestic law; whether its terms extend over a long period of time; and whether it requires a high degree of trust and mutual obligation to be maintained.

The Senate and International Agreements

According to this view, there’s no doubt that an agreement of the size, scope, and duration contemplated by the Obama Administration in Paris deserves to be submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent. As recently as 2009, this was how everyone in Washington thought about the Senate’s role in the process of making international climate-change agreements. That year, ahead of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, then-Senator John Kerry said he and his colleagues were prepared to be “deeply involved in crafting a solution that the world can agree to and that the Senate can ratify.”[11]

But today this consensus no longer exists. When asked whether the President would seek congressional approval for a climate deal produced in Paris, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “I think it’s hard to take seriously [...] some Members of Congress who deny the fact that climate change exists, that they should have some opportunity to render judgment about a climate-change agreement.”

Obama’s Goal: Transform America

In the span of just six years, what was once respect has turned into contempt. And it’s not just contempt for Congress, which I know as well as anybody has done plenty to deserve it. More fundamentally, it’s contempt for the democratic process and for the American people that Congress represents. The chief obstacle to Obama’s efforts to transform America has always been the sovereignty of the American people—the fundamental right of the people to consent to their laws by choosing those who make them.

This is why Congress did not send a cap-and-trade bill to the President’s desk in 2010. And it’s likely why Senator Kerry didn’t claim in 2009 that the President had the authority to single-handedly commit the United States to a new climate agreement in Copenhagen.

But today, with just one year left in office—and with the smug satisfaction of someone who believes the policy of climate change is just as settled as the science supposedly is—President Obama knows that compulsion, not persuasion, is the only way to fundamentally transform a nation.

Recommendations

Now, in the few minutes I have left, I’d like to raise and offer a preliminary answer to the question that’s probably on everyone’s mind right about now: what can be done to stop President Obama from unilaterally committing the United States to a new climate agreement in Paris?

First, the House and Senate should take up and pass a joint resolution expressing the sense of Congress that an agreement of the cost and legal character contemplated by the Obama Administration in Paris should be submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent. The purpose of this resolution would not be to oppose the President’s plans on the merits, but simply to make explicit that which has been implicit in every other previous climate-change negotiation.

For instance, in 1997, Senators Byrd (a Democrat) and Hagel (a Republican) worked together to pass a bipartisan resolution to preempt a similar climate agreement that the Clinton Administration was negotiating in Kyoto. The unstated premise of their resolution was that the Kyoto Protocol would require the Senate’s advice and consent in order to go into effect in the United States. The resolution passed 95-0 in the Senate, with the support of many—like Secretary Kerry—who are in the middle of today’s debate.

This proved that it’s possible to assemble a bipartisan coalition not to debate the merits of the President’s climate policies—though that’s a debate we need to have—but to assert the right of the American people to consent to their laws. It’s time we followed Byrd and Hagel’s lead.

Next, Congress needs to wield its most potent tool—the power of the purse. We can begin by making absolutely clear—to the Obama Administration and more importantly to the foreign governments attending the Paris negotiations—that in America, Congress, not the president, writes the checks.

Members of both chambers and from both parties have a constitutional duty to assert with one voice that Congress will not send a dime of taxpayer money to the implementation of any agreement to which the Senate has not provided its advice and consent. That goes for the billions of dollars that President Obama has pledged to send to the so-called “Green Climate Fund.” And it goes for any other funds that the Paris agreement would expect the United States to give to developing countries for clean-energy adaptation.

Finally, we need to start thinking more broadly—beyond the Paris talks and beyond January 2017—about how we can repair the institutional damage wrought by Obama’s will-to-power approach to the presidency, and how to reform the laws and bad habits that have facilitated the accumulation of power in the executive.

For instance, we need to reform the Clean Air Act so that no future president can claim, as President Obama has tried to do, that a law passed in the 1970s somehow provides all the statutory authority an executive needs to impose new environmental regulations on the American economy for the rest of time. And we need to start thinking about how to address—in the long run—the profound imbalance between the executive and the Senate in the process of making international commitments. When the United States makes major, binding international commitments, they must—always—be subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. This is a basic principle that can’t be stated, and restated, enough.

But we need to do more than that. We need to re-apply that principle to our institutions and our laws. We need to find new ways to re-assert the prerogatives of the Senate in the process of making of American commitments to foreign nations. In 2015 alone, we’ve seen two examples of how far the balance has tilted against the Senate—the Paris climate-change negotiations and the Iran deal.

Conclusion

A few months ago, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked Secretary Kerry why the Obama Administration decided not to seek the Senate’s advice and consent on the Iran deal. He told me it was because the agreement involved multiple parties. This answer was not only wrong, it revealed the extent to which the executive branch has stopped thinking seriously about its constitutional limitations and requirements.

What all of these reform ideas have in common is that they’re aimed at defending and asserting the sovereignty of the American people. Which means that restraining an out-of-control executive is not a partisan effort. And it’s not something that can be done by Congress alone.

It will require the work of institutions like The Heritage Foundation to educate the American people about the dysfunction reigning in their nation’s capital and what we can do about it. I’m here not to invite all of you not to join me in this effort, but to lead it.

—The Honorable Mike Lee represents Utah in the United States Senate, where he serves on the Judiciary Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and the Joint Economic Committee. He is Chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, as well as the Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee and the Water and Power Subcommittee.

About the Author

Show references in this report

[1] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, art. 2, https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/conveng.pdf (accessed December 10, 2015).

[2] Fiona Harvey, “No Plan B If Paris Climate Summit Ends in Failure, Says EU Climate Chief,” The Guardian, July 6, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/06/no-plan-b-if-paris-climate-summit-ends-in-failure-says-eu-climate-chief (accessed December 10, 2015).

[3] Barack Obama, Presumptive Democratic Nominee Speech,” delivered in St. Paul, MN, June 3, 2008, http://obamaspeeches.com/E09-Barack-Obama-Final-Primary-Night-Presumptive-Democratic-Nominee-Speech-St-Paul-Minnesota-June-3-2008.htm (accessed December 10, 2015).

[4] “Developing Countries Are Not Enemies of Environment: Modi,” The Times of India, September 16, 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/developmental-issues/Developing-countries-are-not-enemies-of-environment-Modi/articleshow/48979690.cms (accessed December 10, 2015).

[5] John M. Broder, “House Passes Bill to Address Threat of Climate Change,” The New York Times, June 26, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/27/us/politics/27climate.html?_r=0 (accessed December 10, 2015).

[6] Steven Groves, “Obama’s Plan to Avoid Senate Review of the Paris Protocol,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3055, September 21, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2015/09/obamas-plan-to-avoid-senate-review-of-the-paris-protocol.

[7] S. Exec. Rept. 102-55, 102d Cong., 2d Sess., 1992, p. 14.

[8] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 75, at http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa75.htm (accessed December 10, 2015).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Transcript, “Senate Confirmation Hearing: Hillary Clinton,” The New York Times, January 13, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/us/politics/13text-clinton.html (accessed December 10, 2015).