Skip to content

Rojansky & Semmel: Congress Needs Bigger Role in Arms Control

For the past month Washington has been a flurry of official activity — current and former secretaries of Defense and State testified, speeches made on the Senate floor, statements issued, letters signed — and think tanks, task forces and editorial writers have weighed in on one side or the other. Sounds like classic Washington process? It is. But given the gravity of the issue at hand — ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — we should recall the adage that better process leads to better outcomes. Because the stakes are high, the process so far is not good enough.

[IMGCAP(1)]START ratification is important, but an equally important long-term outcome is the ability of Congress to participate productively in nuclear security and arms control discussions and to provide meaningful oversight of treaty-based international security. An improved agenda for the START debate is likely to result in both ratification of this particular treaty and significantly increased capacity in Congress to engage with the executive branch on the next nuclear treaty and other international security issues.

Some practical and realistic steps to improve the agenda for the new START debate:

First, the Senate should revive the Arms Control Observer Group, a bipartisan panel that played a key political and substantive role during the Reagan administration’s negotiations with the Soviet Union over what became the treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, and ultimately the now-expired START. Its members were far more than mere observers of the negotiations, both advising the administration’s negotiators and keeping colleagues on Capitol Hill informed on new developments and challenges as they arose. The group became an informal internal Senate think tank on arms control and international security, whose members were later instrumental in developing and enacting legislation to address the nuclear risks created by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Senate National Security Working Group, the successor to the Arms Control Observer Group, is less active and has a broader portfolio. Given the expanded slate of arms control issues likely to come before the Senate in the near future, including an agreement on fissile materials, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and a possible further START round, revival of a Senate group focused specifically on arms control treaties makes sense. While it would have been ideal for the group to have started earlier, it could now begin by evaluating the proposed treaty, meeting with U.S. and Russian officials, visiting sites in Russia if necessary, and ultimately working with colleagues to build confidence that the final vote is based on a thorough understanding of the facts.

Second, an effective Senate debate on new START must also get beyond not only Capitol Hill but the Washington Beltway altogether. The very purpose of nuclear arms control is to protect the American people from the dangers of a nuclear attack, and it is essential that Americans understand and support the connection between treaties and their national security. One way to engage more ordinary Americans in the ratification discussion is to hold hearings outside of Washington as Congress has done on other sensitive issues.

Earlier this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings in Louisiana on the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, and there were recently Congressional “field hearings” on the West Virginia mine disaster. It would make sense to bring the arms control debate to communities where it matters most: the states that host U.S. missile, submarine and bomber bases, the homes of U.S. national laboratories, and major metropolitan areas that have for decades been the targets of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and are prime targets for terrorist attacks.

Lastly, whether this or any future treaty is ratified or rejected, meaningful consideration by Congress should include maximum transparency and trust among the Senate, the House and the administration. Instead, the sides appear to be talking past each other, succumbing once again to the partisan stalemate affecting so much on Capitol Hill, including health care, financial reform and appointments. So far, Members of Congress are making little visible effort to resolve underlying disagreements about important issues like the future of U.S. missile defense and the reliability and security of the U.S. nuclear complex. Historically, however, arms control treaties have been approved by the Senate by wide margins, reflecting a bipartisan consensus that these critical national security instruments should be above partisan politics. New START should be debated on its merits, not reduced to generalizations about divisive political issues.

The administration has gone to great lengths to provide the public with information about the new START and even welcomed visits from interested Members of Congress during the negotiations. It has also released several key documents describing its future plans related to missile defense and stockpile management. Now, it should take the next step by not only responding directly to concerns about the plans’ feasibility and future funding from Members of Congress but by explaining the policy to the engaged and interested public across the country. Elements of this discussion that remain sensitive can be limited to closed, Members-only briefings when necessary. Because trust is essential to executive-legislative branch cooperation on foreign policy, it is wise to invest in maximum transparency and factual clarity on all issues now, even at the cost of complicating or delaying a vote on new START.

These three simple steps can improve debates on treaties dealing with international security. While passion and politics are endemic to the policy process, good practices pursued now can help reassure the American people that their elected officials have their security interests first and foremost in mind as they debate the merits of new START. A better process for this debate can also set high standards for future U.S. policy and treaty deliberations, yielding long-term gains for American national security.

Andrew K. Semmel served as deputy assistant secretary of State for nuclear nonproliferation from 2003 to 2007. Matthew Rojansky is deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Recent Stories

Fiscal 2024 spending finale starts to take shape

Security fence to go up at Capitol for State of the Union

California has no shortage of key House races on Tuesday

Alabama, Arkansas races to watch on Super Tuesday

Over the Hill — Congressional Hits and Misses

House GOP reverses course on Jan. 6 footage, will no longer blur faces