You don't need to be in the Tea Party to believe that members of Congress ought to read and understand bills before signing them into law. I think it's fair to say that in this month's elections voters rejected the alternative approach, best articulated by soon-to-be-former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in regard to legislation designed to transform American health care: "We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it."
Now under consideration by the U.S. Senate is New START — a consequential strategic-nuclear-arms-limitation treaty with Russia. The Kremlin interprets it as restricting America's ability to deploy missile defenses. Administration spokesmen say that's not correct. To resolve this confusion, some senators have asked to review the negotiating record — the paper trail left by those who participated in the talks. The Obama administration has been unwilling to provide those documents, in effect asking members of the Senate to embrace the Pelosi approach: Vote for the treaty first, figure out what it means later.
During his Asia tour last week, President Obama said that ratification of New START is his top foreign-policy priority and that he wants to get it done in the lame-duck session of Congress. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week had an op-ed in the Washington Post headlined: "We Can't Delay This Treaty." Why the need for speed? In January, there will be more Republicans in the Senate as well as some Democrats who are likely to read the treaty — and the negotiating record if they can get a copy — with a skeptical eye.
On the one hand, sitting senators are paid to cast votes, not kick cans down the road. On the other hand, you probably don't have to be a Tea Party member to think that for departing senators to ratify this treaty would be like fired executives deciding on a corporate merger just before turning in their keys to the executive bathroom. A treaty establishes international law and commits a nation to a solemn obligation. (At least it does for the U.S. For some other nations, not so much.)
A modest suggestion: It would be entirely appropriate for senators-elect of both parties to send a letter to the White House and the Senate expressing their wish that New START be considered by them and their peers in 2011. Let me nominate Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, to lead that effort.
Members of the House of Representatives don't vote on treaties. Nevertheless, those congressmen most concerned with national security — for example, Armed Services Committee members Buck McKeon, Trent Franks, and Mike Turner — also might consider sharing their views on the relevance of the negotiating record and the benefits of putting off final deliberations for a couple of months.
Nothing in Washington is ever simple, so let me mention this complication: There are some members of the Senate who, though unenthusiastic about New START, may be willing to vote for it anyway in the lame-duck session. They would do this because President Obama has made clear that, in exchange, he will support billions of dollars for the modernization of America's nuclear weapons along with the laboratories that oversee those weapons and the infrastructure that supports them. It is this arsenal, former CIA director and arms negotiator Jim Woolsey recently wrote, that provides "our ultimate guarantee of national security."
Some national-security hawks reason that the Obama administration is unlikely to fund and deploy a comprehensive missile-defense system no matter what treaties are ratified. If approving New START means losing nothing not already lost on the defensive side, while achieving a goal that could not otherwise be achieved on the offensive side, is that not a good tradeoff?
The counter to that? The 2010 elections changed the political landscape. Voters, led by the Tea Party, made clear that their elected leaders will listen to them — or pay a price. The overwhelming majority of Americans support missile defense — polls have established that beyond any doubt. A surprising number of Americans, however, believe we already have the ability to shoot down any missile aimed at us. The truth is we do not. Our shield is full of holes.
Perhaps now is the time for a broader debate: Should the United States retain its superpower status? Or should we become more like our friends in Europe, allowing our military capabilities to ebb while ceding sovereignty to the United Nations and other transnational organizations?
If we do decide to continue to serve as the leader and protector of the world's free nations, we will need both reliable and modern weapons, and defenses against any missiles that might be launched — not just by Russia but also by China (which, like Russia, is rapidly modernizing its nuclear-weapons stockpile) or Iran (which will have nuclear weapons if the United States or Israel does not prevent it).
In addition, there's the "Scud in a bucket" scenario, in which a rogue nation — Iran under its current jihadi rulers, for instance — supplies a single nuclear weapon, a single missile, and an inconspicuous ship to a terrorist organization. The missile is then fired from the ship not far off our shores and detonated at high altitude causing an EMP event — the release of an Electromagnetic Pulse that knocks out the electrical grid and everything computerized, from automobiles to cell phones to bank accounts. The impact would be devastating, as a congressional commission has concluded.
Is this just science fiction? Right now, America's elected leaders are betting it is, just as prior to 9/11 they bet that there was no need to reinforce cockpit doors to prevent terrorists from taking over passenger jets and slamming them into skyscrapers.
The United States has the technology to counter all imaginable missile threats. What we do not have are political leaders who agree that, in the 21st century, the best way to promote peace is not for Americans to leave themselves vulnerable — the Cold War doctrine known as Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD — but for Americans to use their scientific prowess to render useless the weapons of those hostile to us.
This is a debate we need to have — a debate in which I think the Tea Party should participate. Another modest suggestion: Jim DeMint is the senator and Michele Bachmann the representative whom Tea Party members most admire. They should invite the Tea Party to this party.