The Senate Ethics Committee has denied US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wi., permission to join a lawsuit that asks the federal courts to clarify whether it was appropriate for President Bush to unilaterally end participation by the United States in the thirty-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
But that does not mean that Feingold is giving up on the suit brought by 31 member of the House of Representatives, or the cause of pushing the Senate to assert its Constitutionally-defined authority role in deciding whether the US enters and exits international treaties.
“I wanted to be a part of the lawsuit because I think this is a fundamental issue for anyone who cares about the separation of powers. The fact that I am not going to be allowed to be a plaintiff does not make the lawsuit, or the issue, any less important,” says Feingold, a lawyer who says he is considering filing an amicus brief in support of the legal action. “I am going to continue to do everything I can to help the members of Congress that are bringing the suit.”
The Senate requires that members receive a Ethics Committee waiver from rules regulating gifts before accepting free legal assistance. Senators who are forced to defend themselves against lawsuits are routinely granted waivers. But committee staffers said the rules were read narrowly in regard to Feingold’s request because he sought to become a plaintiff in a legal action.
Noting that the suit he sought to join raises an important Constitutional question, Feingold told The Nation, “I really was surprised that the waiver was denied in this case. It seems to me that this was a reasonable request for a waiver, which they should have granted.”
The decision to prevent Feingold from joining the suit means that no senator is officially a party to the legal action. Since it is the Senate that approves treaties — and that Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the nation said should decide when to exit treaties — some legal observers say the suit’s prospects will suffer because there is not a senator among the plaintiffs.
But Feingold says the suit remains vital and necessary.
“This is all very frustrating because none of this should be happening,” the senator said of the conflict over the president’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. “The White House shouldn’t be undoing treaties without the permission of Congress. This is shifting a fundamental aspect of our system. If presidents are allowed to withdraw from treaties whenever they want, then we really are changing the relationship between the legislative and the executive branches. That makes this a very sad moment for the Constitution and the country. If this change is allowed to be made, without objection from Congress or the courts, then we will have a very hard time getting back to the proper separation of powers.”
Feingold, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, has frequently expressed concern about the failure of Senate leaders to defend the role of Congress as it relates to oversight of the White House. In addition to making an unsuccessful attempt in early June to open a Senate debate over Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty on June 13, the Wisconsin senator has in recent weeks been saying that the administration should seek Congressional approval before declaring war on Iraq.
Feingold says his concern about Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty extends beyond the Constitutional question.
“I’m very concerned about where this administration is moving in terms of arms control. For thirty years, the ABM Treaty has been the foundation for our strategic relations with the Soviet Union and Russia, and for much of the progress we’ve made on arms control,” says Feingold, who is also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a written statement detailing those concerns, Feingold argues, “At a time when our global strategic relationships are of paramount importance, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty risks undermining the strength and staying power of the global coalition against terrorism. Instead of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, we should be taking further steps to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to thwart the attempts of terrorists to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the means to deliver them.”
Similar sentiments motivate US Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has spearheaded the lawsuit challenging the legality of the administration’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. Kucinich plans to continue to work closely with Feingold on the issue.
Even without a senator’s name on the plaintiff list, Kucinich says, the suit remains appropriate and necessary. Noting that the House played a critical role in debates over presidential attempts to scrap treaties in the 19th century, Kucinich says there is plenty of precedent for objections from both chambers of the Congress.
“Look at the Declaration of Independence itself. In that document, the Continental Congress challenged King George for suspending legislatures and simply declaring that his word was law. This country was founded by people who objected to a ruler named George who thought he had the authority to roll over the legislative branch,” says Kucinich, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We have to reassert that founding spirit. The Constitution charges Congress with establishing laws, just as it empowers the president to carry out laws. Congress approved the ABM Treaty overwhelmingly, and it was George Bush’s responsibility to carry out that law. Instead, what Bush has done is unilaterally throw out a law — in this case the ABM Treaty.”