05/07/2007 - 1:18pm
Old (but important) Business
Posted by Don Kraus
I'd like to start a conversation about a few pieces of "old business" that many had hoped the Democratic leadership would have quickly dispatched when they took control of Congress. By old business I mean:
In other words, we are talking about policies that with just a bit of leadership and legislative muscle could have been law in January.
The two most urgent issues that fall into this category are the are removal of the "peacekeeping cap" and ratification of the Law of the Sea convention. But if you have other "old business" please join the conversation.
The peacekeeping cap has been around since dawn of the Republican revolution in 1994, when Congress limited the amount the U.S. could spend on U.N. peacekeeping missions to 25% even though we had agreed to fund 31% of them. (The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the U.S., pay a premium for the peacekeeping budget because of their special role in creating peacekeeping missions and their ability to veto any mission.)
In December of 2000, as part of a deal that then Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chair Jesse Helms and ranking member Joe Biden crafted, the U.S. peacekeeping assessment was lowered to 27%, and has since dropped to 26%. But Congress never kept our part the deal and removed the 25% cap, so the differential has created hundreds of millions of dollars in new arrears since then.
Since 2001 every Secretary of State has asked Congress to remove the cap. For a couple of years Senators Helms and Biden temporarily had the cap lifted, but that expired in 2004. In 2006, Senator Biden actually had an amendment passed as part of the Defense Department authorization that lifted the cap through 2008. But his House counterpart, Henry Hyde, had it removed in conference committee.
The new U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon talked about this problem with President Bush at their first meeting. Senator Biden has introduced legislation again to fix the problem temporarily. Secretary Rice and other administration officials have called for the caps removal, but we are still racking up new debt and bad karma at the U.N. How come? I'll get to that it a minute.
If you think the cap is old, the Law of the Sea has it beat for oldie-moldy. This treaty was first negotiated during Nixon, almost finished during Regan, amended to the U.S.'s satisfaction during Bush senior, and finally signed by Clinton. What the treaty does is provide rules of the road for two-thirds of the Earth's surface and covers everything from freedom of the seas, national boundaries, migratory fish stock, land base pollution of the seas, and deep sea mining. 153 nations have ratified this treaty. The U.S. is the only developed nation that has not, even though the military, environmentalists, the oil and shipping industries, as well as peace groups and religious organizations all want it passed.
In 2004 it was finally approved unanimously by SFRC under Senator Lugar's (R-IN) stewardship. Unfortunately then Senate Majority Leader Frist bowed to pressure from a few flat-earth colleagues and never brought it to the floor where it easily would have received the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
But now the stars have aligned and the administration (including State and DOD), the Senate Majority Leader, the Chair and ranking SFRC members all support ratification. There is a limited window of time, I think between now and the end of July, before the 2008 elections make the passage of reasonable legislation all but impossible.
So what's the hold up on these two pieces of old business? In my opinion it is the senator who "owns" these two issues, SFRC Chair Joe Biden. To be fair, Senator Biden's and Senator Lugar's staffs are working hard on both of them. But neither issue can move in the Senate unless Joe Biden takes some personal interest in them, and time is running out. Senator Reid will not schedule floor time until they clear committee. Biden will need to agree to hearings and business meetings. On the peacekeeping cap he will need to personally reach out to other authorizers or appropriators, as well as his counter part in the House, to find a legislative vehicle to move it on perhaps the Defense authorization or Foreign Ops appropriation bill.
Unfortunately, in our all-Iraq-all-the-time Congress these issues are not getting the attention that they need. And Biden's run for president is taking the wind out of SFRC's sails. One staffer that I talked to recently spoke to said that "it's just not the same committee anymore, nothing is getting done."
But if Senator Biden is serious about his presidential run then these are two issues that he should pay more attention to. It certainly would look presidential remove a source of criticism that blemishes the U.S.'s battered public image the cap. And shepherding a major multilateral treaty through the Senate during one of the most unilateral administrations our nation has know since WWII would look pretty good as well. Both of these issues might be "old business" but it is business that impacts to our national security and our role in the world. More to come later.
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