Sen. Webb to Obama: Hold on a Second!

Sen. Webb to Obama: Hold on a Second!


ABC News affiliate WHSV in Virginia is reporting that Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, has sent a letter to President Obama expressing concern over some statements regarding the upcoming Copenhagen conference:

Dear Mr. President:

I would like to express my concern regarding reports that the Administration may believe it has the unilateral power to commit the government of the United States to certain standards that may be agreed upon at the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The phrase “politically binding” has been used.

Although details have not been made available, recent statements by Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern indicate that negotiators may be intending to commit the United States to a nationwide emission reduction program. As you well know from your time in the Senate, only specific legislation agreed upon in the Congress, or a treaty ratified by the Senate, could actually create such a commitment on behalf of our country.

I would very much appreciate having this matter clarified in advance of the Copenhagen meetings.


Jim Webb
United States Senator

Senator Webb, often described as a politician with a independent streak, has not hesitated to speak out against other Obama Administration decisions. That independence earned him a reputation for being either rude or courageous (depending on your point of view) during the last administration.

Cross posted to

  • Nick Benjamin

    Obama does have unilateral authority to negotiate proposed treaties. They don’t get officially ratified until the US Senate votes on them, tho.

    IIRC they are technically federal law as long as he’s President, tho.

    He probably doesn’t need ratification for some things. In particular as the EPA is able to regulate Carbon emissions he could just make a deal, come home, and tell the EPA what their new regs will say.

  • Frank Hagan

    Nick, I don’t think you’re right about treaties; the way I understand it, it is not law until it is ratified by the Senate. Then, it is law. You are right that President Obama can subvert the Constitution by wielding the regulatory power that Congress has stupidly put in the hands of the Executive Branch over the last few decades, but I would hope that he … a constitutional scholar … would not act in that manner.

    I think this is a classic power struggle between our “imperial” presidency and the legislative branch. While President Obama has deferred to Congress more than most recent Presidents for his agenda items (health care, stimulus, cap and trade), he still doesn’t avoid the temptation to aggregate power and amass more of it through things like extension of the Patriot Act, appointment of numerous “czars” that don’t get congressional approval, etc. Its a natural inclination that all Presidents have, and left unchecked, it doesn’t bode well for our democracy.

    Webb’s statement is a good sign that the Senate will not roll over for further encroachment into their sphere of influence.

  • Nick Benjamin

    I’m pretty sure that I read somewhere treaties are (theoretically) legally binding as long as the President who negotiated them stays in office. I know it’s not exactly a great source, but I googled it and came up with a bunch of legalistic arguments. I’m guessing the Supremes have never bothered ruling on it, as it’s not a huge deal and due to Separation of {Powers they can only order the President and Legislature around under very specific circumstances.

    As for Democracy: Britain has no Separation of Powers, and their version of Checks and Balances (called “Responsible Government”) includes no institutional checks or balances. In fact until a few months ago their top Court was in Parlaiment.

    Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India are all run on more or less the same model. The only former British colony that actually has a decent (ie: 20+ year) history of democracy using a system like ours is us.

    As for strict Constitutionalism I’m not a fan. The US System was great back when it took weeks for an Ambassador to communicate with DC. It worked pretty well even when the telegraph arrived. Nowadays, with our geopolitical strategy based largely on having full Ambassadors everywhere, always negotiating treaties, it’s just a pain. To do that you need everything to run through one guy. Under our system the only guy that can be is the President.

    Folks may not like it, and may yearn for a simpler time when the Senate could actually be consulted on every little agreement. But this is the 21st century.

  • Frank Hagan

    Nick, if you want to change the constitution, there is a provision to do that. Your arguments that other representative democracies do it differently applies only to bolster your argument that a constitutional amendment is necessary. It doesn’t change current law.

    I hope President Obama respects the Constitution. I expect that he will. It is what he is sworn to do.

  • Nick Benjamin

    Technically Obama would be respecting the Constitution if he went to Copenhagen, agreed to major CO2 restrictions, came home, and ordered the US Government to enforce those restrictions. Congress has given the EPA regulatory authority over pollutants like CO2, and the EPA’s boss is the President.

    It’s not Obama’s fault that Congress decided it can’t regulate pollutants without significant help from the Executive branch.

    Some folks don’t like that, but that is the way it is.

    And Frank, if you can show me a political junkie who doesn’t have at least one (and probably 3-4) great ideas for Constitutional Amendments I’ll show you a geek who doesn’t have 3-4 great ideas for the next version of Windows.

  • Frank Hagan

    We’re probably beating this to death, but an “agreement” isn’t a treaty. President Obama can agree to anything, but he can also be challenged on anything by lawsuits or legislation. So if he ordered us to cut back CO2 to levels to say, 1905 levels, the Congress would pass legislation to limit his authority. Or the Supremes could get involved.

    A treaty is a different matter. Once it is signed, and then ratified by the Senate, it becomes as important to our system of justice as the Constitution itself. It is not a mere executive order refining a regulatory power granted the Executive by Congress, but the supreme law of the land. Changing a law is one thing; abrogating a treaty is another thing entirely, and very serious.

  • Nick Benjamin

    1905 levels?

    That’s an interesting thought exercise, but back in the real world that is not gonna come out of the Copenhagen summit.

    At best we’ll get something slightly more binding than Kyoto, that includes the Chinese and Indians.

  • Slarti

    I wonder if it’s possible for there to be some kind of progress on environmental standards during the lame duck session of Congress. Probably not, as we can’t even seem to get a bipartisan international treaty past the Republicans in the Senate. Probably any kind of new regulations are going to have to be done through the EPA. We may have to start looking for a new plan past Cap and Trade.

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