By Richard J. Douglas
By repudiating the Paris climate accord, President Trump began the work of restoring proper limits to presidential power. He also returned authority on treaty-making, usurped by his predecessor, to its proper place: the U.S. Senate. It was the right decision.
Our nation is party to many international treaties on the environment, natural resources, and wildlife. Some date to the 1940s. You may see the list in an excellent U.S. State Department publication called “Treaties in Force.” But with the Paris accord, President Obama disregarded the constitutional process that was most likely to ensure lasting consensus on American treaty obligations: Senate review.
Our nation carefully observes its treaty obligations and expects the same of treaty partners. Durable consensus on those obligations is built in the Senate, not the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, or even the Oval Office. Senate review is a common element among treaties in force for the U.S. today. In fact, it may explain why many were not repudiated or terminated long ago.
Depending upon the treaty, Senate approval is sometimes hard to come by. But on the whole, it is a guarantor of success for the work of Executive branch negotiators.
Disregarding the Constitution
President Obama was not the only U.S. public official to disregard constitutional requirements for major treaty initiatives. The Senate’s failure to assert its own constitutional treaty-making equities was equally unfortunate.
The Senate has procedural tools to induce a president – any president – to follow constitutional requirements: holds, the filibuster, control of the Executive Calendar, and reconciliation to name a few. But if the Senate does not employ these tools, they are useless and the Senate is irrelevant.
With both the Paris accord and the Iran deal, the Senate failed to defend its explicit constitutional prerogatives when the president intruded upon them. In fact, the Senate held his coat as he did it. As a result, the Senate is weaker than it was at the beginning of the Obama presidency.
As an American, I think that is bad for the Senate, bad for treaty-making, and bad for the country. As a Marylander, I was disappointed to see the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democratic member, Sen. Ben Cardin, acquiesce in surrendering Senate prerogatives. The Senate must defend these prerogatives, or it will lose them.
The right thing to do
On substance also, repudiating the Paris accord was the right thing to do. Lay the Paris accord and the Kyoto Protocol side-by-side on a table. Both instruments take the same general approach on carbon reductions: exemptions for “developing” countries like India and China, and industry-killing targets set for us by treaty partners who invariably cheat.
It is edifying to hear global warming activists present China as a “model” for carbon reduction policies. Policy-making is easy in a communist dictatorship.
With both Kyoto and Paris, the American people had the identical reaction: negative. With Kyoto, Sens. Robert Byrd and Chuck Hagel teamed up to warn the Clinton Administration against locking our country into precisely the kind of economy-killing treaty which President Clinton eventually signed. Like the Paris accord, Kyoto was a “dead letter” from the start. Clinton knew it, and never submitted Kyoto to the Senate.
No doubt hoping to avoid the same fate for his climate change efforts, and cheered on by convinced global warming disciple John Kerry, President Obama’s approach was to bypass the Senate completely. It did not work, and as President Obama learned last week, his Paris cure was worse than Clinton’s Kyoto disease.
Dealing with climate change
Climate change occurs. It explains the pre-historic marine fossils found hundreds of feet above sea level on Sideling Hill in western Maryland. But like anything else, the American people have the right to decide when, where, how, and whether to respond. In large part, they have committed such decisions to elected representatives in federal, state, and local government. This is a recipe for accountability, not disaster.
In fact, President Trump’s decision on the Paris accord seems to be having a salutary effect: returning decisions on the environment to the state and local levels, where such decisions should be made in the first place. At the moment, state and local pronouncements on “implementing Paris” in spite of the President’s decision on the accord are rather defiant in tone.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s wariness is warranted. But my own view is that it is far better to have accountable state, county, or municipal elected officials here making decisions on the economic impact of measures to protect the environment, than it is to have unaccountable international bureaucrats on the other side of the globe making them for us.
In that sense, perhaps Hogan could exert positive, steadying influence in an area where it is genuinely needed.
Richard J. Douglas has done treaty work for the Senate, the State Department, and the Justice Department. He has also run for U.S. Senate.