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You Can’t Amend A Treaty

By Max Bergmann  

"You Can’t Amend A Treaty"

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Debate has started on New START and Republican Senators are offering amendments to the treaty. Senate rules allow the Senate to amend a treaty, but this is dumb. In reality, a treaty cannot be amended. All efforts to amend the text of the treaty are therefore poison pill amendments offered to kill the treaty.

The Senate has NEVER amended the text of any previous arms control treaty. Republican complaints that they need more time so that they can offer amendments to the treaty are not serious. They are efforts either kill the treaty or string out the process to delay action on other items.

The reason this is the case is because amending a treaty would require going back to the other negotiating parties and reopening negotiations. The other party is unlikely just to make a concession, but will ask for something in exchange. This threatens to completely unravel the previous negotiations and the treaty. Amending the START treaty therefore threatens to reopen and therefore unravel months and months of painstakingly balanced negotiations with the Russians. If the Senate amends the treaty, such that it requires reopening negotiations with Russia, than the Russian Duma would likely do exactly the same thing and would offer amendments that the US would perceive as against our interests.

In this vein, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and John Barrasso (R-WY) want to amend the preamble of the treaty, which says there is a connection between offensive and defensive systems. This preamble is like saying water is wet. Henry Kissinger called the preamble to the treaty a “truism” and it provides no constraints on anything. As Senator John Kerry pointed out today in the floor debate, this would kill the treaty, because it would require renegotiating the treaty.

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Fortunately, all amendments that are offered can be voted down by a majority vote and will therefore all be defeated. This just makes offering amendments a colossal waste of time, which for Republicans is the entire point. At the end of the day, the treaty that is voted on will be exactly the same treaty that has been in front of the Senate for the past nine months.

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