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A Treaty Meets A Sour Congress

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

(TIME, December 22) -- To understand the possible fate of a treaty that would govern the air, it helps to consider what happened to the treaty that would govern the oceans. That earlier pact is known as the Law of the Sea Treaty, but as far as the U.S. Senate is concerned, its fate and its initials are the same: LOST. Although more than 100 other nations have ratified it since 1982, the Law of the Sea Treaty languishes before the Foreign Relations Committee, along with almost 80 other international pacts covering everything from a nuclear-test ban to a boundary agreement between the U.S. and Cuba. And, as shown by the defeat of major free-trade legislation last month, Congress seems less inclined than in the past to join international movements. The nationalist passions reflected in the candidacies of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan have sunk deep into Republican politics: just before Congress adjourned this year, it refused to pay $1 billion in back dues to the U.N. or to contribute the $3.5 billion the International Monetary Fund was asking to help stabilize Asia's economies.

Senate majority leader Trent Lott, still stung by the pelting he got from his own party for helping President Clinton pass a chemical-weapons treaty earlier this year, didn't bother to wait for negotiators in Japan to finish their work last week before declaring the deal dead. "If they come back and think we're going to go along with what they're doing in Kyoto, they've got another think coming," Lott said. That was by no means a strictly partisan assessment. Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who backs the deal, publicly urged the Administration to hold off submitting it to the Senate until at least 1999.

But whether the White House wins or loses, it will be up to Vice President Al Gore to lead the fight. He's the one who has devoted a political career to pressing the issue, and he's the one who wants to be elected President just as the treaty comes before Congress. In his first news conference after the agreement was announced last week, the Vice President moved to defuse the first wave of criticism against it by saying the White House has "completely ruled out" the idea of raising taxes to meet the treaty's requirements and would not even consider submitting it to the Senate unless developing nations participate. "As long as it doesn't mean taxes or a special deal for China, we'll be O.K.," says a hopeful Gore aide. "As long as the economy keeps humming along, they're going to have trouble portraying this as a job killer."

But the Administration's dismal record on the recent trade bill proved that banking on the economy is not enough. So the campaign to convince the country that the treaty's targets are reasonable and relatively painless will begin next month. President Clinton's budget proposal will include $5 billion in tax incentives and research grants aimed at spurring businesses toward energy efficiency, even without being bound by a treaty. The White House is also hoping that new advances in technology--say, refrigerators that can run on the energy it takes to burn a light bulb--will help make the treaty seem more consumer friendly. Its success in the end will depend on expanding America's environmental constituency: Will the soccer moms give up their sport-utility vehicles for a future of fresh air?


In TIME This Week:

Cover Date Dec. 22, 1997

Public Eye: Lies My Ambassador Told Me
A Treaty Meets A Sour Congress
Turning Down The Heat
The Notebook
Why Talk Is Not Cheap
Viewpoint: Not Enough Conversation?
Drew Friedman 'Toon





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