Obama and Medvedev sign new START

The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations recently published a summary of the continuing resolution (CR) that would allow continued government operations through March 4, 2011. The vote on the resolution is expected today as the current CR is set to expire. Senators should not fall for the promise of the so-called “modernization” funds proposed in the CR in exchange for their vote on the flawed New START nuclear arms treaty between the U.S. and Russian Federation.

Senators should understand that no matter how they may wish it were so, their vote will not get them any long-term funding for nuclear modernization. There is no deal. Moreover, Senators should also not be intimidated by the threat to withdraw this money if New START is not approved by the Senate.

The CR adjusts the current rate of operations for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) weapons program to $7 billion, a $624 million increase over the fiscal year 2010 appropriation, in conjunction with New START. According to the draft language, the $624 million increase “shall be available only upon the Senate giving its advice and consent” to New START. This means that congressional appropriators do not support on its merits funding for nuclear modernization. It is also an explicit threat to pressure Republicans to vote for New START.

By threatening to withhold funding unless the treaty is ratified, this is playing crass politics with U.S. national security. Conditioning funding for nuclear program on New START is playing politics with our national security. If funds are needed for the most vital and sensitive military capability in the military’s arsenal, they should never be held hostage to a political deal. To bargain with the nation’s security is the antithesis of the appropriate behavior of the body charged to “provide for the common defense.” If the dollars are needed, they should be provided without conditions—period.

The treaty must stand on its own merits and be judged according to whether it is beneficial to U.S. security or not. The Administration has actually acknowledged this at one point: James Miller, the principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, recently stated: “The Administration’s strong view is that the treaty makes sense on its own merits, and the Administration’s strong view is that additional funding for NNSA makes sense on its own merits. So no, we don’t support that linkage.”

The U.S. nuclear infrastructure certainly needs a comprehensive overhaul and is in need of urgent attention. The White House has proposed $85 billion in spending over the next decade, but this money is modest compared to the need. The funds proposed are anything but a commitment to modernize the nuclear arsenal. The Administration’s plan is overwhelmingly weighted in favor of sustainment or maintenance over modernization. Current White House policies bar steps that would lead to the development and procurement of “new nuclear warheads” or “capabilities” to meet new missions in the 21st century. There would be no modernization of warheads or delivery systems. To call this “modernization” is like saying that taking your car to Jiffy-Lube is “modernizing” the transportation network.

Furthermore, much of the proposed spending is in the out years beyond Obama’s term as President. The White House cannot make iron-clad guarantees on funding nuclear programs. Congress must still pass annual budgets.

Expecting funding for nuclear modernization in exchange for the passage of New START is simply misplaced. Senators can pretend that there is a deal, but the White House cannot make a long-term deal. By conditioning funding on passage of New START, congressional appropriators have made it clear that they don’t favor nuclear modernization on its merits. If they don’t cut funding this year, they will cut it next year.

On its face, voting for passage of this treaty based on the fantasy that there is a deal or that this offers a satisfactory solution to reverse the decline of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure is reprehensible and shortsighted. The treaty is seriously flawed, and U.S. national security interests demand that these flaws be adequately addressed before any final vote on the Senate floor.

In addition, the vote should not be scheduled during a short lame duck session. In a recent Heritage Foundation report, Matt Spalding, Ph.D., notes that never in the history of the United States has a lame duck Senate given its advice and consent and voted on a major treaty. The ratification of New START by a lame duck Senate would not only ignore the message sent by voters in November but also break a significant precedent, consistent with the principle of consent, maintained by Presidents and Congresses since the passage of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933.