Thursday December 6, 2012

The opposition of all but eight Republicans in the U.S. Senate to a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enough on Tuesday to deny the necessary two-thirds vote needed for treaty ratification. The 61-38 vote fell five votes short of the necessary majority, according to the Associated Press. All 38 "no" votes came from Republicans.

According to the AP, "The treaty, already signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, states that nations should strive to assure that the disabled enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow citizens."

Republicans objected to taking up a treaty during the lame-duck session of the Congress and warned that the treaty could pose a threat to U.S. national sovereignty, an unfounded concern bordering on paranoia, similar to fears of Sharia law being instituted in Oklahoma. Indeed, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe said he does "not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society."

As noted by the AP, opposition to the act was led by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a tea party favorite, who also said the treaty threatened U.S sovereignty: "Specifically he expressed concerns that the treaty could lead to the state, rather than parents, determining what was in the best interest of disabled children in such areas as home schooling.


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..Parents, Lee said, will ‘raise their children with the constant looming threat of state interference.’"

Supporters of the treaty -- the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities -- said that since the 1970s the Senate had voted to approve treaties 19 times during lame-duck sessions.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a leading proponent of the treaty, said it would make no changes to U.S. law, and would create no rights in our law not now existing; it could not serve as a basis for a lawsuit in U.S. courts; and the committee established by the treaty would just make recommendations and would have no power to change laws.

"What are the U.S. obligations under this Treaty?," Kerry said in a statement. "Simple: Prevent discrimination on the basis of disability only with respect to rights that are already recognized and implemented under U.S. law. In other words -- keep doing what we already have done for the 22 years since we proudly passed the Americans with Disabilities Act."

The ADA, a signature accomplishment in 1990 of Republican President George H.W. Bush, put the United States in the forefront of efforts to secure equal rights for the disabled. The law became the blueprint for the U.N. treaty, which was negotiated by the administration of President George W. Bush, also a Republican. It was completed in 2006 and President Obama signed it in 2009.

"The United Nations estimates that 650 million people around the world are disabled, about 10 percent of the world’s population," the AP notes. Supporters such as Kerry say that the treaty, "by encouraging other countries to emulate the rights and facilities for the disabled already existing in the United States, would be of benefit for disabled Americans, particularly veterans, who want to work, travel or study abroad."

The ironies of the defeat of the treaty Tuesday are both sharp and saddening, as former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, 89, the party’s candidate for president in 1996, who was severely wounded in World War II combat, was sitting on the Senate floor in a wheelchair awaiting passage of the treaty. No wonder the AP described the atmosphere during the vote as "unusually solemn."

It’s worth noting that other Republicans supporting the treat were Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy flier who suffered disabling injuries in Vietnam; Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee; and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

After the vote, Kerry said the Senate was clearly a broken institution. We think, more fundamentally, the problem is wrongheaded tea party extremism. 

The GOP is the strongest bastion of "American Exceptionalism," the idea that the U.S. is better and more fit to lead than other nations. Yet, rather than provide such leadership by adopting a treaty to globalize a U.S. law to empower the disabled, a law adopted and a treaty developed under Republican presidents, the now-dominant wing of the Republican Party would rather present us to the world as isolationist know-nothings.

Asked about the vote on cable TV Wednesday, Kerry expressed optimism the Senate would eventually approve the treaty. We hope enough GOP senators will listen to the better angels of their party and vote yes to participate in the treaty and support the human rights of the disabled and the image of the U.S. as a credible world leader.