Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing hard to get the Senate to ratify a treaty codifying the rights of persons with disabilities, but the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, will announce Friday that he is still opposed to ratification. Corker, a second-term senator from Tennessee, voted against the treaty when the Senate last voted on it in 2012.
The George H.W. Bush administration that initially negotiated the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is essentially a worldwide expansion of the Americans for Disabilities Act, which became U.S. law in 1990. The treaty has been ratified by 125 countries and the European Union, but not the United States, although the Obama administration signed it in 2009.
Last December, then-Senator Kerry made a major push for Senate ratification that included the personal intervention of former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who appeared on the Senate floor in his wheelchair to make an impassioned plea to his fellow Republicans to support the treaty.
But the treaty was defeated on a 61-38 vote that largely fell along party lines, short of the 67 vote two thirds threshold needed in the Senate for treaty ratification. Kerry had pushed for the floor vote against the advice of Republican supporters of the bill, including Sen. John McCain, who had warned Kerry that there wasn’t enough GOP support at the time for ratification.
“This is one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate and it needs to be a wakeup call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people,” Kerry said at the time, promising to try again.
This year, Kerry and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power have been pushing hard again for ratification. But Corker’s opposition could deal a major blow to that effort. “Ultimately, I’m unable to vote for a treaty that could undermine our Constitution and the legitimacy of our democratic process as the appropriate means for making decisions about the treatment of our citizens,” the Tennessee senator will say in a Friday statement, obtained in advance by The Daily Beast. “I’m disappointed I can’t support the treaty, but I stand ready to look at other ways to enhance ongoing U.S. efforts to improve circumstances for the disabled both at home and around the world.”
Corker had been in negotiations with the administration and leading Democratic supporters including, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) over legislative language that might have addressed his concerns about the treaty. Lawmakers’ concerns are usually addressed through a resolution of ratification that includes declarations with reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) that can be later used to guide treaty implementation.
But those talks broke down, Corker said. “I also greatly appreciate the efforts of the administration and Senator Menendez in working with us for several weeks. However, through the process of attempting to resolve concerns about the treaty being used inappropriately to expand federal power beyond constitutional limits, I remain uncertain that even the strongest RUDs would stand the test of time, and I believe any uncertainty on this issue is not acceptable.”
Corker’s main concerns surround issues of states rights. The Constitution states explictly in Article VI, Section 2, that “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” This was tested in a century-old Supreme Court case Missouri v. Holland, which Republicans are currently trying to overrule. The Court’s decision, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., makes clear that states have to respect treaties entered into by the federal government and that there is “no invisible radiation from the general terms of the Tenth Amendment” that allows states to ignore treaty obligations.
As a result, Corker fears “Because the CRPD deals so extensively with matters that the Constitution leaves to the states, ratifying this treaty would greatly expand federal authority into these areas, including family law.” However, as Corker’s predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) noted in an op-ed last year, “ratifying the agreement will not affect current enforcement of the ADA or create additional causes of action under the treaty. The Americans with Disabilities Act would remain the controlling U.S. law.”
Last year, the treaty was also opposed by several right wing, socially conservative advocacy groups, including Rick Santorum’s Patriot PAC, the Family Research Council, and the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation.
In a November hearing, Menendez made the case for Senate ratification of the treaty and said it would not only help disabled people around the world achieve a better standard of living, but also that it would help American businesses and American standing abroad.
“On the Declaration of Independence, it borrows the unalienable right to pursue happiness. And from the Americans with Disabilities Act and other landmark accessibility laws, the treaty borrows the concept of reasonable accommodation,” Menendez said. “By ratifying this treaty, we will be advocating for the adoption of American values around the world. At the end of the day, if we fail to ratify the treaty, the U.S. point of view and U.S. interests will be marginalized.”