Why 48 Treaties Languish in Senate

Congress flexes foreign-policy muscle, stalls pacts on weapons, women's rights, ocean

In recent years the US Senate has become increasingly involved in an area of foreign policy that's usually a president's preserve - foreign treaties.

The Chemical Weapons Convention is only the latest international agreement forced to sit down and wait for Senate ratification. Fully 48 treaties that were negotiated and signed by the White House are now stalled in the Senate, according to numbers compiled by Congressional Quarterly. Some treaties have been twiddling their metaphorical thumbs for years.

Though it doesn't happen often, "it's not unprecedented at all" for senators to conduct their own foreign policy by scuttling administration-backed treaties, says Robert Beisner, an American University diplomatic historian.

More commonly, "if there are things about a pact that key senators don't like, they try to get changes by holding it up," says Dr. Beisner.

Like so much in US politics, the struggle over treaties reflects the constant competition between the White House and Congress for power and prestige. Under the Constitution, the president has primary US treaty-making authority. But the Senate gets to give advice and consent and ratify the finished product by a two-thirds vote.

The most famous of the handful of pacts rejected this century was the 1920 Treaty of Versailles, which would have brought the US into the League of Nations. Other defeated treaties include a seaway pact with Canada and a 1934 compact on adherence to the World Court.

Will the same fate now befall the Chemical Weapons Convention? Years in the negotiating, it's a big multilateral pact that aims at a worldwide ban on production and possession of poison gas stocks. But key GOP legislators - particularly Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - have vowed to block it, saying it's loophole-ridden and would lull Americans into a false sense of security about the problem of chemical terrorism.

Administration officials remain confident that GOP leaders will eventually bring the pact to the Senate floor. "We will get a vote, and the vote will be positive," UN ambassador Bill Richardson said on Sunday.

But the chemical pact is far from alone in its travails.

Among the other four dozen stalled treaties is the Law of the Sea, which was wrapped up in 1982 and won initial agreement from 170 countries. It aims to set rules for the trackless ocean - extending national rights over resources out to 200 miles from shore, for instance. It has yet to even win a hearing in a Senate committee.

MANY lawmakers felt that Law of the Sea provisions dealing with seabed mining were unfair to US companies. Amendments may have eased this problem, but the treaty remains stalled.

The Law of the Sea sets up an international organization to deal with disputes. In general, that's the kind of thing US senators are leery of, says one expert. "It's when there is either international rule writing or the creation of an international organization that we stay out," says Ruth Wedgewood, a Yale law professor.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is another convention on the slow road to nowhere. It was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1994, but has yet to be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor. Its provisions call for women to have equal access to schools and work, among other things. Nations that sign up are also supposed to ensure that they have minimum ages for marriage.

The international Treaty on Biological Diversity negotiated at the 1992 earth summit in Rio de Janiero is another big compact that remains stalled. And the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, though signed by the Clinton White House, hasn't even been submitted to the Senate. Some lawmakers worry that it will interfere with the rights of US parents to raise their children as they see fit.

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