Saturday, November 19, 2016
The U.S. Senate is a strange legislative body. Its fundamental structure was intended to protect less-populated agricultural states from being overwhelmed by more populated manufacturing/ trading states with heavy urban concentrations. That vector resulted in the current reality of states like Montana, with about one million residents, and California, with thirty eight million residents having absolutely equal voting power in the Senate (two Senators each).
That less than two percent of Americans work directly on farms suggests that those original assumptions be revisited… unlikely given the near-impossibility of amending the constitution for just about anything. The United States constitution, as I have blogged before, is the single most difficult such mandate to amend in the entire democratic world. The 27th Amendment (dealing with Congressional raises), for example, the last passed (in 1992), took 203 years from proposal to passage.
As we have seen in the past two elections, tons of out-of-state political contributions have flowed into Senate elections under the Citizens United decision. Why? Because it is vastly cheaper to buy media time to boost a Senate candidate in sparsely-populated states than facing the massive media costs to support a candidate in heavily-urban states like California and New York. You “buy” the same power in the Senate for a whole lot less money. With six year terms, Senators represent a greater “stability” – as compared to the two year terms of House members who seem to be in perpetual election mode – in personnel. Good value for a rich contributor with an agenda.
While appropriations bills ($$$) must originate in the House, a formidable power, the power to confirm high-level appointments (simple majority vote) and ratify treaties (two-thirds majority vote) rests solely with the Senate. The House just doesn’t have a say on these matters. We have seen a Senate “stall” that simply stopped ratifying Obama judicial appointments, not just for the Supreme Court, for several years.
Senate rules are equally problematic. The old ability of a Senator to take the floor and read/speak for as long as possible, often passing the baton to a similar “talker” – that classic filibuster (a concept that originated in ancient Roman times) intended to keep legislation from reaching a floor vote – has been replaced with a more modern “cloture” structure where a 60 vote majority can force a floor vote at any time.
Thus, where one party alone cannot achieve that 60 vote majority, this gives the minority party an ability to keep unwanted legislation, affirmation and confirmation from achieving a full Senate vote. Unless the majority changes the rules to allow a simple majority to force a floor vote. This is referred to as the “nuclear option” – with the understanding that if any party in fact changes that rule, it will stick if, as, and when that party becomes a minority party in the future. We are watching. Will the GOP majority invoke the nuclear option and change the Senate for the foreseeable future?
In the meantime, we have to deal with a world where the President implements a complex treaty and needs Senate ratification formally to bind the country. That two-thirds majority looms large. It has also led to negotiating treaties with Presidential action based on such treaties actually moving forward based on that treaty pending a Senate vote (or, as is the case most of the time, even without an expectation of a floor vote). We have a president-elect who has vowed to abrogate Senate-ratified trade and mutual protection treaties (can he legally?) and stop unapproved treaties that have already been fully negotiated.
The Iran nuclear accord was not a direct American-Iranian treaty. As a member of the Security Council, the United States voted for the United Nations to accept that agreement. It is very unclear if the United States can unilaterally withdraw that support after voting for it. But for actual treaties, it is very different. Given that two-thirds majority vote requirement for treaties, can you picture our Senate voting at that level on much of anything?
The recent Paris climate change accord has not been formally ratified. Trump’s official policy is that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government and has vowed to withdraw America’s participation in that accord. There is this mythology that if we disavow pollution restrictions, the American economy will soar and lots of new jobs will be created. Coal miners really believe that they will get their obsolete jobs back, for example. Easter Bunny time!
If, however, the United States leaves as a participant in the massive global support for that treaty, we need to prepare for the possibility mega-polluters like China and India could join suit. That, in turn, would almost guarantee that we hit the tipping point that irretrievably changes this planet for a permanent “much, much worse.” The resulting political instability from massive land-mass loss, droughts and flooding – which we can clearly see as ISIS has built its power with support from drought-stricken farmers with nothing left to lose – will create new migration and political issues at a level the world has never contemplated and is completely unprepared to deal with.
The American “Trump” stance has already infuriated global leaders, who are conjuring appropriate retaliation against the United States if it in fact denies that treaty. DailyKos.com, November 16thsummarizes the current conundrum: “Now we get to the recently Paris Agreement signed by 100 nations, and with many more as Parties of it including USA and China. Of course here it has not been ratified, and it never ever will be - like the large majority of all the treaties we have signed for decades. It’s all a game you see, president signs them, they are never brought to the floor to be ratified and everyone in the senate can ludicrously posture about them at home. If they are brought to the floor for a vote they are very likely defeated. Like when Bob Dole went in person to plead with his own party to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012 and it failed in a 61-38 vote...
“The thing is when those treaties are not ratified they are basically executive orders and the next president can just go back on them. That doesn’t happen normally because presidents understand that our international standing will crater, and that signing other treaties would be hard after you go back on the ones you already had.” Europe’s blood is boiling that a climate-change denier could negatively impact their own environment and trigger great global volatility that always follows loss of farms and businesses on a mass scale (as has already happened).
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right of center, has suggested that if the United States in fact abrogates the Paris Agreement, the United States should face international wrath and be saddled with a globally-enforced penalty: “Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3 per cent, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies,” said the past president with aspirations for future office.
Further, if Trump’s constituency believes that Trump can impose a unilateral terms in trade negotiations, with a whimpering acceptance from the powers on the other side of the negotiations, they are in for a big surprise. It takes two to tango. Further, if the United States abrogates its responsibilities and is viewed as an unreliable partner in international relations, we can expect China and Russia eagerly to step into our shoes. Mistakes can take decades to repair, if they are reparable at all.
This applies also to practices that have been internationally confirmed as “torture,” like waterboarding, which could easily result in war crimes charges against those who inflict or order such actions, even against a president who permits such torture after he or she leaves office. We do not have the right to create global rules without those impacting having a strong voice in the result. We are not “king of the earth.” Even with the most powerful military on earth (larger than the next 14 nations’ military combined), remember that we have not won a major war since WWII.
In short there is finesse involved in such treaty negotiations, there is compromise inherent in the process and consequences for rogue states that scoff at international priorities that are deemed essential to most of the earth. We need to find a path that realistically reinforces American values and priorities without forcing the world to view us as a rogue state that defies that what the rest of the global population requires or needs. And then work strongly against our needs and wants.
I’m Peter Dekom, and in callous and unthinking unilateral actions, there is often an equal and opposite reaction.