By Alex Bollfrass
Today the House is preparing to consider its FY 2012 defense authorization, which includes several well-publicized amendments on nuclear policy drawn from Rep. Michael Turner’s (R-OH) “New START Implementation Act.” Turner’s amendments focus on imposing wide reporting requirements on the administration, and the larger bill aims to legislate multi-year spending mandates for nuclear modernization and to prevent the U.S. from making any unilateral decision to dismantle excess warheads.
As both bills make their way through the House, attentive CSPAN viewers may find themselves wondering: “Why are they talking about New START? Wasn’t that finalized in December when the Senate ratified the treaty in exchange for a 10-year budget plan on the maintenance of our nuclear weapons?” Kingston Reif at Nukes of Hazard has already dissected the technical details behind these questions, but it’s also important to remember the political and budgetary dimensions of New START’s ratification.
Let’s start by recalling the administration’s great efforts to earn Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-AZ) support for this treaty. As the Senate’s most vocal critic of President Obama’s nuclear policies, Kyl was invited to Geneva during the negotiations, and administration officials flew to Arizona to discuss his concerns. Negotiations ultimately led President Obama to pledge to commit more than $85 billion over the next decade on the modernization of the nation’s nuclear infrastructure and weapons systems.
This unprecedented expenditure plan won enthusiastic praise from the National Laboratory directors. Together, they wrote that “we believe that the proposed budgets provide adequate support to sustain the safety, security, reliability and effectiveness of America’s nuclear deterrent within the limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads established by the New Start treaty with adequate confidence and acceptable risk.”
Satisfied that New START was on balance in the nation’s security interest, the Senate voted 71 in favor and 26 against. But Senator Kyl voted “no.” Like a car dealer trying to demand more money half a year after the sale, he too has joined the charge to lock the administration’s budget plan into law.
That 10-year NNSA budget plan already has been presented to the Senate’s satisfaction. And, because we cannot predict the future, it would be unwise to lock in that spending legislatively.
Budgets and nuclear arsenals are most effective when they are constructed to match the world they seek to influence. The capacity to achieve efficiencies or respond to new developments is lost by mandating a force posture and an infrastructure budget several years in advance. Such a measure would tie the hands of this and future administrations in an unprecedented way.
One important shift in the environment may already be underway. The pressure to cut the budget has increased significantly since New START’s ratification, with the impetus coming from Chairman Turner’s own party conference. It would be difficult to justify a decade-long spending mandate under such circumstances, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already alluded.
More that just spending and subsidies are at risk, though. Lawmakers seem to have lost sight of the fact that nuclear weapons are not just a domestic issue. Russia is counterparty in New START, and attempts to reinterpret it will not go unnoticed in the Kremlin. This does not give Russia a veto overU.S.nuclear policy – either party can decide to leave the pact – but the House should concentrate on the primary purpose of our nuclear deterrent, which is to reduce foreign nuclear dangers. International effects of Turner’s legislation (and Kyl’s companion bill) must be considered.
So here’s the surprise ending: Right now, this fight is all about politics, and its outcome will be determined by the collision of two heavily politicized issues: the Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons policy and budget-cutting. The result will speak volumes about the balance of power between new House members intent on reducing the deficit and the defense hawk establishment.
Alex Bollfrass is a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and co-editor, with Barry Blechman, of Stimson’s Unblocking the Road to Zero series.