Shortly after leaving their offices on June 24, dozens of Hill staffers, foreign policy experts, and old Washington hands made their way to the lower floor of the Capitol Visitors Center, a sprawling complex below the halls of Congress. The occasion was the low-key launch of the new House Sovereignty Caucus, the project of three Republican members — Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) — who had become more and more worried about Americans ceding their rights to foreign institutions. Retired Lt. Col. Oliver North and former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith stopped by to make remarks and pose for photos. Patrick Henry College Chancellor Michael Farris made small talk near a table of fruits, vegetables and soft cheeses.
“I have said for years that we ought to get the U.S. out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S.,” said Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), addressing the crowd in an impromptu speech. “I’ll do everything I can in the Congress to maintain the U.S. as a sovereign nation, subservient to no one but the almighty God.”
A series of traffic delays meant that, Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center For Security Policy, was the last supporter of the new caucus to give a speech. He bemoaned the confirmation of Harold Koh as Legal Adviser to the State Department, an “enemy” of sovereignty, shortly after the Senate had agreed to move ahead to a vote on his nomination. But he was optimistic. “We may now have in the House a vehicle for keeping the so-called ‘Upper House’ more honest on these issues.”
While Republicans and conservative activists were disappointed by the confirmation of Koh, the long delay leading up to the vote and its relative closeness — 65 to 31 to end debate on the nomination and 62-35 to confirm him — have boosted their hopes of successfully battling treaties that they characterize as threats to American rights and national interests. Treaties need the votes of 67 senators to be ratified, and can gum up the business of the Senate for weeks if they become flash points for controversy. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, has convinced Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) — a member of the House Sovereignty Caucus — to introduce a Constitutional amendment protecting the right of American parents to discipline their children and send them to religious schools.
Those hopes are likely to be tested at least twice this year. According to staffers for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or the Law of the Sea Treaty — a 1982 treaty that governs the right of countries to use the oceans — could be reintroduced next month. And President Obama is in Russia this week in part to move forward the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the 1996 agreement on weapons testing that was rejected by the Senate in 1999, when the upper chamber contained 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Of the 16 treaties that the State Department included on its priority list in a May 11 letter to the committee, both sides agree that these two will be the first to face full votes. And both sides agree that the Koh vote provided a good idea of the support these treaties might command from a very skeptical Senate Republican conference.
“The vote against Harold Koh is probably the minimum vote against both of those treaties,” said John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, and who has been a forceful critic of both treaties. “I think that a lot of Republicans, whether they agreed or disagreed with Koh’s views, basically agreed that president had the right to appoint his own team. Whether they would also support these treaties, given their concerns about national sovereignty, is another question.”
The power to approve treaties rests entirely with the Senate; on the surface, that would seem to make the House Sovereignty Caucus and its supporters less relevant. But both supporters and opponents of the treaties said that skeptics of international law and international agreements will have an outsized influence in this debate. Senate staffers from both parties, experts from liberal groups, and experts from conservative groups all cited the same handful of people as the ones able to turn opinion on treaties: Bolton, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, and fellows at the Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). For an example of their influence, one supporter of the treaties pointed out what happens when someone does a basic Google search for “Law of the Sea.” The first links include the Heritage Foundation’s page on the treaty, CEI’s page, and the site UNLawoftheSeaTreaty.org, owned by another think tank that opposes the treaty.
Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at CEI, said that there was some truth to this characterization. “At the one end, the American people are very suspicious of more United Nations involvement in their lives,” said Ebell. “When you’re saying that you’ll put the UN in charge of the oceans, that’s pretty strongly opposed by the American people. But at the other end, most Washington insiders, a lot of experts who work on this, a lot of admirals, say we ought to do that and say that the problems have been fixed since President Reagan opposed it. So we’re not a very broad coalition.”
Treaty supporters, who had hoped that a Democratic president and heavily Democratic Senate could get past this standoff, are frustrated by the conservatives’ success. “The fight over the Law of the Sea has been a textbook example of the politics of intensity trumping the politics of common sense,” said Don Kraus, the CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions, a group that supports both treaties. “The treaty’s narrow group of opponents have whipped up conspiracy theories to feed political temper tantrums in swing states.”
While negotiations that could lead to progress on the CTBT are taking center stage this week, treaty opponents are focusing on the Law of the Sea Treaty because it will come up first, and because its fate in the last Congress provided a roadmap for both sides. A tough campaign against the treaty, which included TV ads from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and pressure on conservative senators like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), whittled down its support. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had long supported the treaty, backed down and said that it needed “changes” shortly before the 2008 New Hampshire presidential primary.
According to Baker Spring, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, opposition to international law and treaties like these has coalesced in the wake of the campaign against the Law of the Sea Treaty and because of worries about President Barack Obama. “We have a president in office who is potentially serious about this agenda. Nobody held the view that George W. Bush was going to scurry down a road that would undermine our national sovereignty.”
Spring suggested that Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, slow-walked the treaty last year because he wanted to get a majority of Republicans on board. Lugar spokesman Mark would not confirm that, but he pointed out that so far the Obama administration’s support for the treaty is comparable to the Bush administration’s — just one of the items on the priority list. “The Obama campaign was fantastic at using social networking to organize and build up grassroots support,” said Hayes. “The administration has chosen to use that skill on some campaigns, like the health care push, but not on other campaigns.”
Unless that happens, skeptics of international law suggested that high-visibility coalitions like the House Sovereignty Caucus can win the argument.
“I think it can have a real impact if it raises the volume of the debate,” said John Bolton. “The higher the salience of the issue, for conservatives in particular, the greater the likelihood that people will oppose these treaties.”