GOP ‘Sovereignty Caucus’ Battles Obama on Treaties

Wednesday, July 01, 2009 at 11:53 am
An anti-Law of the Sea Treaty ad from the Coalition to Preserve American Sovereignty (YouTube)

An anti-Law of the Sea Treaty ad from the Coalition to Preserve American Sovereignty (YouTube)

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.

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Image by: Matt Mahurin

“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, 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.”

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Robert McManus
Comment posted July 1, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

You quote Myron Ebell of CEI: “When you’re saying that you’ll put the UN in charge of the oceans, that’s pretty strongly opposed by the American people.” Yeah, right, but you uncritically accept Mr. Ebell's mendacious characterization of the Treaty. You heard it here first: the LOS Treaty gives NO substantive powers to the United Nations, and places NO international organization “in charge of the oceans.” I challenge Mr. Ebell or anyone else to cite a single treaty article that does so. Flatly and demonstrably false statements about a treaty supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on national security grounds comes very close to disloyalty.

Comment posted July 1, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

I don't know enough about this issue to know to what extent if any Weigel is representing Rockefeller interests*, but Bush supported the bill. And, it's extremely sad that anyone would pretend that he supported U.S. sovereignty. He even made a pledge to a foreign country to change our laws to suit their interests. The great majority of Americans would strongly oppose what Bush wanted if they knew all the details.

* One of the funders of this pseudo-paper's parent company.

Comment posted July 1, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

Right wing fear mongering in search of profits. Ferengi run the GOP.

is that a haiku?

luther blissett
Comment posted July 1, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

Shorter 24: “I'm too ignorant to discuss the topic — look, a Mexican!”

You're much funnier when you're engaged in epistemological masturbation over birth certificates.

Comment posted July 2, 2009 @ 1:43 am

So DO these terrific Americans support
Enforcing OUR Federal Anti-Torture Laws?

Against any and all that conspire to torture or order torture in Our Name?

calling for Enforcement



Comment posted July 2, 2009 @ 3:01 am

Fortunately these folks don't control US foreign policy any more, and they really can't obstruct it successfully, because they're just plain wrong wrong wrong. These folks are out there with the Michele Bachmann's of the conservative lunatic fringe – they see threats in every shadow, every event they don't like.

Do we really need a Constitutional amendment assuring that parents may educate their children in a private religious setting? It's a pretty dramatic solution for a nonexistent problem. I have friends who do that right now, freely, with out interference from anybody at all.

They worried about national sovereignty, they should consider what form of regulation will work to prevent private corporations like AIG to assault our financial system to the point of bringing it to it's knees. Religious freedom is safe in the US. Financial fraud, private wealthy interests driving public policy … that poses some real threat

Comment posted July 3, 2009 @ 5:53 am

As the GOP unholy alliance falls apart, the wedge political and fringe groups are fighting for revelance. These neocons and the vunerable politicans are trying to gin up issues. If Bolton and North are involved, you stand the chance of criminal activity by North and fighting windmills by Bolton. The country have moved past the ignorance of the Iran/Contra times and will not support a political party that caused the country to enter two wars and wasted billions to private contractors. These clever plots to use political discord to employ our military in geopolitical matters for the benefit of private business will not be tolerated any more. The populance is more involved and intelligent that the hicks deceived under the unholy alliance for the last 30 years.The usual hate for the UN, international treaties or progressive world causes will not rally enough nuts to be relevant in any discussion as the GOP do not control any part of the government.

Comment posted July 9, 2009 @ 9:13 pm… Dear Sirs, The law of the sea must protect our environment by allowing our country to insure compliance by what ever means needed to enforce a future national clean ballast water policy policy. The reason we can not get our Federal government to act on ballast dumping is because of the economic domination that trade has over human health. Although the environmental aspect is a disaster we need to address the human health problem as the above web address shows others are doing. I hope the US will use its sovereign right with its version of the law of the sea to protect its citizens from H1N1 the same as China appears to have. Maybe they seem to understand the cost savings of preventive action on health care. Interesting how ocean currents out beyond even the two hundred mile limit could carry disease, toxins, nuclear waste water islands, and areas of ocean development (mining) and exploration. What temperature activated virus, or other pathogens may be released as the ancient ice melts around the shared area of the poles? The day of designer algae is already here and with new pathogens being released from the ancient fresh water ice melting they could act as a host or their may be existing marine life that will work. The idea that the IMO can do more than promote clean ballast water technology is a throw back to a time when smaller maritime nations could dominate the military power of the sea. Yes we need technology on an international basis, but since 911 we can not afford the risk of our safety, health, and environment, being in only the hands of an international organization of foreign sea captains and state laws, national policy is imperative to our security. H1N1 is one pathogen we were lucky with, what will happen when one like bird flue mutates from bird excrement in water near ships taking on ballast water, will our country be able to use our military to protect us, under our version, of the law of the sea? All governments need to be involved in inspection, technology, and surveillance.
Don Mitchel

Robert McManus
Comment posted July 10, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

I'm not sure what your point is relative to “the law of the sea,” but I hope you haven't bought in to the “sovereignty” crap used by Right Wing fund-raisers these days. You want a national clean ballast water policy? Do you have any problem with Art. 211, ¶4, of the Treaty, assuring coastal state “sovereignty” over vessel-source pollution in the 12 mile territorial sea? Or Art 33, permitting “sanitary regulations” in a broader (up to 24 mi.) “contiguous zone”?

You also want “all governments” involved, but you seem not to like the IMO, a cooperative venture of most governments, and virtually all those with commercial fleets.

Comment posted July 13, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

Dear Sir, Sorry to take such time to respond, as I am an amateur study of the politics, environmental, historical, and business aspects of ballast dumping and attend to my business full time. After reviewing several of my post I realize you are correct and I do appear to dislike the IMO. I have to apologize since historically they have and should / shall remain an important integral entity of any global solution to the problems. I believe the only solution that will solve the problem on an international basis is the mandatory use of technology that may or may not yet exist. The idea of dumping untreated water anywhere, is in my personal opinion unacceptable because of the natural effects nature plays in the distribution of pathogens,virus,toxins,pollutants,etc. Wind,Ocean currents,flooding,all living species, etc. , can then move them again even into The High Seas or the deep sea bed where sovereign economic interest may lie because of the lines being drawn on a map. I would like to see our country take the lead in environmental discharges of water as I believe it would ultimately have a ripple effect on other major powers and would help the IMO work with less prosperous countries so they , also implement new technologies as applicable to their resources. We led the way in space exploration in the 60's We should lead the ocean technologies need in this century. I also believe that if the web site about China, is valid, mandating ballast water from Mexico and the US be treated through the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone because of H1N1 that perhaps they may be taking the lead role in protecting health from ballast dumping, and I find it quite sad that we can not afford the same protection. I also believe that with ancient fresh water ice melting in the Arctic, with ancient virus and pathogens long lying dormant if dilute salinity is being drawn into ballast systems or dirty discharges could be very problematic. As bird flue etc. are known to be transmitted from areas where waterfowl congregate and knowing the way geese deposit feces in the water I see the probability of pollute ballast water growing in the world as global warming continues. Whether or not these issue are being addressed in the Law of the Sea, I am not privy to, so I speak out. Thank you.

Comment posted July 18, 2009 @ 11:48 am

I'm hoping we CAN get the UN out of the USA and this Sovereignty Caucus can stop certain agenda's the UN has!

Research their Agenda 21 in depth. Obama wants to zone the oceans! How about getting our economy going and stop worrying about the world…let them govern them selves, without the UN sticking their nose in their programs, and without sticking their nose in ours!

Robert McManus
Comment posted July 21, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

Ummmm, I'm not so sure what your complaint is, beyond the UN in some general sense. But you say “Obama wants to zone the oceans!” What on earth are you talking about? Do you even know?

Fair Seas Ahead for UNCLOS? » The Arctic
Pingback posted July 31, 2009 @ 2:41 am

[...] Although the group of senators actively opposed to UNCLOS is rather small, an actual ratification vote could be much closer. Under the aegis of the newly formed GOP “Sovereignty Caucus,” many senators contested the nomination of Harold Koh to his post of Legal Adviser of the Department of State due to his multilateralist leanings. He was confirmed with a vote of 62-35. A vote for UNCLOS – which would need 67 votes to be ratified, since it is a treaty – could be a hairraiser, as David Weigel of the Washington Post suggests. [...]

Comment posted July 31, 2009 @ 4:55 am

to whom reads these comments; I am an American Patriot and I will not ever allow our countries sovereignty be overstepped by an over ambitious puppy in Politics like Obama, Mr. Obama is treading on very thin ice these days with his Cap and Kill bill and this very bad Healthcare nightmare, the more Obama comes out to voice his support for these bills the more his poll numbers go down, we Americans must keep his numbers heading south even faster, so no one will back him in the senate on anything. So I pray that no one in our government would ever sell our sovereignty away to any country or organization of nations, it will send the American people into civil war mode real fast. I am hearing treaties that Obama wants ratified that would usurp our Bill of Rights and the Constitution, why don't our government take their oath of offcie seriously anymore, I believe that we should start putting congressmen and senators in jail for perjury if they break that oath, especially the president who takes that oath, our government must be made to remember that this country belongs to we the people not them the government, so that is why Obama's Health garbage and his cap and tax junk and any treaty must fail. I personally am getting real sick of fighting for rights I have been born with, leave my 1st, 2nd and all my Amendments alone, congress better never sell this country out, leave our right to keep and bear arms alone or they will find out just what that 2nd Amendment is truly for, we people have the right to remove a government that don't up hold our Constitution, and that means ratifying treaties that put international laws above our Constitutional law, that is an oath breaker and to me is treason. make the people understand that any treaty takes our sovereignty and Libery away. God bless America and may he remove this intrusive government that lied it's way into power. Amen.

Robert McManus
Comment posted July 31, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

I'm not sure who reads these, either. I shudder to think.
You want everyone to understand that “any treaty takes our sovereignty and Liberty away.” Really? You are opposed to ALL treaties, beginning in 1787? Is it your position that the US should repudiate, for instance, the postal convention? How about the treaties governing airline safety? Against those, too? Or the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (1949), pursuant to which the US government is obligated to control your whaling activities?
May I suggest that you don't know a single thing about a single treaty Obama (or anyone else) supports. Nothing. You just hear noise and respond by making more of it.

Comment posted November 3, 2009 @ 8:23 am

Comment posted November 3, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

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Comment posted August 6, 2010 @ 7:26 am

make the people understand that any treaty takes our sovereignty and Libery away. God bless America and may he remove this intrusive government that lied it's way into power. Amen.

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