Senate Republicans passed up an opportunity for the U.S. to lead because of half-baked arguments and conspiracy theories.
You wake early in the morning to the sound of your doorbell ringing, followed by a heavy knock on the front door. Bolting up in bed, you hear the ominous whir of a helicopter’s blades circling above your house. You race to wake up your disabled children and tell them to stay close and take only what they can carry. But even as you make a break for the back door, a glimpse of shadowy figures through your curtained windows tells you it’s already too late. They have you surrounded. The United Nations Peacekeepers are here to take your kids to school.
This scenario is not too far removed from the nightmare future some Republicans claimed would unfold if the Senate had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities earlier this week. That’s why, despite strong bipartisan support, the treaty failed in a 61-38 vote on Tuesday, five votes short of the required two-thirds majority. Another day, another missed opportunity in America’s most dysfunctional deliberative body. But this particular case of mindless obstructionism is both a bad omen for the possibility of progress in President Obama’s second term and a real blow to children and adults throughout the world whose physical and mental disabilities continue to pose serious economic and social challenges.
The convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and since ratified by 126 countries, aims to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” In addition to outlining basic principles for fair and equitable treatment of the disabled, it established a committee of human rights experts tasked with monitoring progress and issuing non-binding recommendations pursuant to those goals.
Pretty scary stuff, right? Well, yes, according to people like Rick Santorum, one of the treaty’s most vocal critics. Writing at Glenn Beck’s online news hub, The Blaze (where I go for all my sober analysis of international human rights law), Santorum warned that ratifying the treaty could “potentially eradicate parental rights for the education of children with disabilities” and “allow our beliefs and values to be outsourced to outside entities that may not always have our best interests in mind.” Somehow, a measure meant to promote equal opportunity and increased accessibility was twisted into a law that would allow a shadowy council of bureaucrats in Geneva to authorize forced abortions and ban home-schooling for students with special needs.
After Republicans blocked the treaty, Santorum took a victory lap at The Daily Beast, writing that he opposes the treaty:
because our nation has been the worldwide leader when it comes to protecting the disabled. We should be telling the U.N., not the other way around, how to ensure dignity and respect for the disabled.
… However, the United States passing this treaty would do nothing to force any foreign government to change their laws or to spend resources on the disabled. That is for those governments to decide.
So if I’m reading Santorum correctly, he’s claiming that the treaty would allow the UN to dictate U.S. law, but not other countries because they write their own laws, but U.S. law is already stronger than anything the UN could ask for anyway, so the U.S. should be telling other countries what laws to write. In other words, he opposes it because Barack Obama signed it.
Anyone hoping that President Obama would have an easier time pushing a progressive agenda through Congress in his second term should be concerned that incoherent arguments like this managed to persuade 38 Republican senators to oppose the treaty. Of the eight Republicans who crossed party lines to support it, three will not be returning to office in January. This was a treaty originally negotiated by George H.W. Bush and endorsed by John McCain and Bob Dole, not some hippy business about stimulus spending or climate change. While the constitutional two-thirds requirement created an extra hurdle to clear, it’s telling that even this benign measure couldn’t escape the legislative graveyard that is the U.S. Senate. Harry Reid’s proposed changes to filibuster rules can’t come soon enough, but in cases like this, there’s no substitute for a minority party that actually wants to help govern rather than obstruct.
And despite opponents’ claims to the contrary, America’s failure to ratify the treaty is in some sense a symbolic rebuke to people with disabilities and an abdication of its role as a world leader. Santorum is right to point out that the U.S. has historically led on this issue. As many news reports have pointed out, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990 with broad bipartisan support, actually served as the inspiration for the UN convention. That just makes it sadder that failure to ratify the treaty now puts the U.S. behind the curve compared to Burkina Faso.
With or without our help, there’s plenty of work to be done. The UN’s fact sheet notes that there are roughly 650 million people living with disabilities throughout the world, facing unemployment rates as high as 80 percent and literacy rates as low as 1 percent. At the same time, the U.S. is in danger of undermining its own progress in this area by slashing programs like Medicaid, which delivers benefits to 8 million people with disabilities. Rejection of this treaty is just the latest sign that helping the disadvantaged, whether they’re born with physical impairments or born into poverty, is not a priority for Republicans in Congress.
In his Four Freedoms Address, FDR declared, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.” This conception of freedoms entails responsibility to the global community rather than isolation from it. Having our legislation held up as the international model for the rights of the disabled should be a source of national pride, not more partisan paranoia. Like the fringe theories about Agenda 21, discomfort with this convention seems to have less to do with the failings of the UN than with the right’s fears that its own agenda will be judged by the world and found wanting.
Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.