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  US Legislative Process – Indo–US Nuclear Deal  


By: Hari Sud
April 03, 2006
iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


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US Constitution, written 230 years back split the power to govern the state in three parts. The elected representative of the people i.e. US Congress (House of Representative and the Senate) have all the power to make laws and generally represent the will of the people. The executive branch including an elected president, implement these laws. To make governing easy, the executive branch appoints its own officials to govern, take initiatives, prepare budgets & expense statement, manage government held holdings and generally run the country by implementing laws passed by the Congress. All executive power is vested in the President. In matters of foreign policy the executive branch is pretty well independent. It takes initiatives and deal with situations as it deems fit. Later it seeks Congressional approval. A quick measure to defend the nation’s interest by ordering the armed forces to undertake a task is within the power of the President. For declaring war or getting involved in major war outside its border, Congressional approval is necessary. A major shift in foreign policy like the Indo – US Nuclear Deal also requires Congressional approval.

The third party to above two governing institutions in US is the Supreme Court. It is a judicial body but its appointees are eminent jurists and also former politicians. This body has the task of upholding the US Constitution. It guards that right jealously. Supreme Court has on occasions struck down laws, which have been passed by the Congress and backed by the executive branch. As a matter fact it is the most powerful of the three above named institution but it operates in the background. It has no initiative of its own. Parties have to approach it for an opinion and a decision.

Why does the Indo – US Nuclear Deal have to go thru the Congress?

In any democratic society the representative of the people hold the supreme power. In India it is Lok Sabha & Rajya Sabha. To make governing easy, the majority party in the House (or Sabha) appoints a few of the elected representatives to run various government departments i.e. the Cabinet with Prime Minister as its head. The Cabinet has sufficient power to approve a major internal or external policy shift. For example the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can approve the Indo – US Nuclear Deal. He has to table the same in the Parliament either prior and in some cases after the Cabinet approves the deal. Cabinet votes on the deal, before it sends it to the President. Tabling of any deal like the above in the Parliament is a necessary means to get people behind the measure. It is formality but a good one. It allows the representatives of the people to have a say on it.

The above does not happen in the US. The presidential system of governance does not vest a lot of power in the Cabinet and the President. Reasons – all the Cabinet members are appointees and not elected. Hence other than the President and the Vice President who are elected, everybody else in the Cabinet is an appointee. Congress appoints them at the request of the President. Scrutiny of cabinet appointee at times is a lengthy affair. This allows the Congress to examine appointees carefully. Hence, the elected representative of the people have a role in governance but an indirect one. The Cabinet itself has a limited power i.e. it cannot approve a major policy shift. In addition all money appropriation has to first go to the Congress. If approved, then only the Executive Branch is allowed to spend it. This is a fine check and balance. But it is also a major headache to implement any policy change. Deal have been broken in the Congress, leaving the executive branch red faced. A recent case has been the Dubai Port Management Deal in March 2006. This deal, although approved by the Executive Branch had trouble passing through the Congressional scrutiny. Congress broke the deal. Everybody was left red faced. The Dubai Company finally withdrew the take over offer. The after affects of this withdrawal have just started to unfold. US will have tough time convincing people in the Middle East that US is a serious friend.

Indo – US Nuclear deal is that state today. Congressional hearings have begun. This process is giving all sides a chance to air their opposition or support of the deal. Instead of all the members of the Congress listening into various to and fro arguments, a small committee of elected representative sits down and examines the deal. They present their findings to the full House. At times a few measures have not made pass the Committee hearings. This is not usual but not uncommon either. Indo – US Nuclear Deal is today at the Committee hearing stage. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding hearings on this deal. Its Chairman, Senator Richard Lugar is an all-powerful politician. He has often differed with the President. How is he reacting to this deal is unknown. What is known is that opposition to this deal is mounting.

Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) proponents and current opposition to the above deal had failed to convince the Bush Administration to renege the Bush – Manmohan agreement of July 2005. After the deal was finally signed in New Delhi in March 2006, the NPT Lobby shifted its effort to convince the Congress to cancel the deal. Right now they are more successful. The Executive Branch has made a weak presentation to date. The Whitehouse has not even lobbied on behalf of this deal. The main prime mover of the deal, Condi Rice, the Secretary of State is pre-occupied elsewhere. All this is worrisome.

How is the NPT Treaty Proponent are Picking up their Support

The entire NPT Lobby is former Democrats (barring a few Republicans) and former government officials under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. This is a select group, which in late seventies under then President Carter Drafted the NPT legislation and under Bill Clinton imposed punishing sanctions on India for exploding the Nuclear Bomb in 1998. Bill Clinton later reneged a few of the sanctions but kept the others. It was President Bush who removed most of the sanctions and decided to move forward in strategic relations with India, hence this deal.

NPT has found recently a very vocal support from former President Carter. He has been out of the office for 25 years but still messes around the world in one issue or the other. He showed up in Baghdad in 2002 before the second Gulf War. It did not made a difference but Saddam Hussein got a propaganda victory. At times President Carter finds some support. At other times the media and the world simply ignores him. He was not the most successful US President in last 50 years. Rather he was the weakest. That is why candidate Ronald Reagan defeated him so easily in 1980 elections. Some of the current NPT Lobby stalwarts in the US were his appointees in seventies. Ex-president Carter has termed the Indo – US nuclear deal as dangerous. His opposition as stated in his own words is as follows:

“There is no doubt that condoning avoidance of the NPT encourages the spread of nuclear weaponry. Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Argentina and many other technologically advanced nations have chosen to abide by the NPT to gain access to foreign nuclear technology. Why should they adhere to self-restraint if India rejects the same terms?”

Reference: http://dawn.com/2006/03/30/op.htm

David Albright is another find of the NPT Lobby for propaganda against India. He is the former arms inspector who went to Iraq to find Weapons of Mass Destruction. He did not find any. He came back dejected and looking for something to do found a cause in opposing the Indo-US Nuclear deal. Congressional leaders are quoting him while opposing the deal. Truthfully, he is no foreign policy expert. He does not know the dynamics of international relation and how things are altered today to shoot for a bigger target in the future. But at the moment he has the ear of the US Congress.

Democrats V/s Republicans on this Nuclear Deal

The Republicans currently control both Houses of US Congress. They have their own people Chair the committees which review any deal making before the full House votes on it. The latter vote is usually a formality. The Committee Chairman is key to approval or rejection. If he recommends, which he does after due hearing and voting by all members of the Committee, the legislation moves to the full house and is very quickly voted on. Richard Lugar the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Joseph Biden the ranking Democratic minority leader have the ear of the NPT Lobby. They are listening to the various views presented to them. In the absence of a strong defense for the deal by the Executive Branch, NPT Lobby is having a field day. Hence on a daily basis good or bad news is coming out. The bad news which made Indian diplomat’s in Washington worry a bit recently, has been that a bunch of the Indian Caucus members (all important countries have pro legislatures grouped in Caucuses) and all of them Democrats except one in the House of Representatives have co-sponsored a resolution to oppose the deal. Democrats are generally pro India and they usually welcome India initiative. Their turning against this deal speaks volumes about the NPT propaganda. The forgoing resolution may not carry much weight in a trial of strength on the House floor, but it is begging for a strong participation by the Administration to get the deal thru the Congress. One reason why Indian Foreign Secretary rushed to Washington in the end of March is to make sure that all Congressional objections are dealt with and the State Department takes up a bit more active role in pushing the approval process through.

Who is Lobbying For India?

The executive branch lead by President Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice are best lobbyist India has in Washington. Their argument will carry weight. They will ultimately see the approval thru. Former US ambassador to India, Ambassador Robert Blackwill, is putting up additional effort on India’s behalf. The latter is proving to be insufficient as the onslaught of the NPT Lobby Group continues. The Congressional hearings have not reached a critical stage where the outcome of the deal could be threatened. Still vigilance is order of the day.

When the above is in progress, gentle diplomacy of Pakistani and Chinese diplomats in Washington is not to be under-estimated. The former has been outright denied any place in the nuclear world for its proliferation activities and the latter does not wish any future challenges to its power projections in Asia. Hence Pakistani diplomats are walking around and talking to the US Congress members and expressing their views. Chinese on the other hand have expressed their views unofficially. They do not wish to antagonize India before hand, should the deal be approved.

What happens next after the Committee Hearings?

Before a bill becomes a law, which the Indo –US Nuclear will ultimately become (in fact it is an amendment to an existing law), it has to complete the full process of hearings, debate and voting on the Senate Floor. The bill could be passed by unanimous consent or by a division vote. This process is duly recorded. If the bill passes the Senate, it is delivered to House of Representative. The House of Representative could pass the bill as is or offer its own amendments and then pass the bill. Later the bill and all amendments are delivered back to the Senate. The Senate may agree with the amendments and vote on them or send it back to the Congress for reconsideration. In rare cases the Senate and the House of Representatives may pass two version of the same bill. A joint committee of the Senate and the House of Representative then reconciles the two versions. Ultimately the President signs the bill and then only it becomes a law.

The process is a bit different in the Indian or British parliamentary systems. A deal like the above is approved by the Cabinet and then tabled on the floors of the two houses. In the parliamentary system if the house vote goes against the bill, then the government falls. The same is not true in the US presidential system. The non-passage of the bill does not threaten the government. The US President wins some initiatives and looses other and business of governing goes on. Usually if a loss of an initiative is eminent then it is withdrawn.

The Indo-US Nuclear Deal is stuck at the first rung of the approval process. The trial of strength on the floor of both the houses is yet to occur. It is believed that the President and his staff will muster enough strength to beat off the NPT opposition. That is our best hope.

In the end, should the unthinkable happen then Indo –US ties may suffer a jolt, which may be so swear that pleasantness may not return to two country’s relationship in a generation. It took forty years to reach a bit of an understanding and push this deal forward. It may be another forty years, before India – US will start talking again on strategic terms. Pakistan will be emboldened with US Congress’s response and China will have nobody to compete in Indian Ocean Littoral States. India’s economic future may be impacted a bit. Gas to power the Industry will be found elsewhere. Iran will renew friend’s status with India and offer gas at cut-rate prices. India’s guaranteed vote at the IAEA and the UN against Iran at the moment will be no longer being available. It may embolden Iran and they may go ahead and proceed with bomb making. A win-win situation may turn into loose-loose situation.

Hari Sud

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