Nuking the Social Contract

On Tuesday, November 30 Senator John Kerry told a public gathering that he was confident the New START treaty would be ratified by the Senate before the end of the year. “I think we will get it done,” said Kerry, “providing a few small pieces come together in the next few days.”i Unfortunately it would seem the phrase “small pieces” has come to mean desperate and immense sacrifices of the social contract to the nuclear gods, all borne on the backs of the nation’s middle class and poor.

About the same time Senator Kerry was speculating about the treaty’s prospects for ratification, a different kind of gathering was underway in the White House. At Obama’s behest the House’s incoming Republican leadership gathered with their Senate counterparts and Democratic Party leaders to make deals over legislative action in the lame duck session. On the table were a number of things including New START and the expiring Bush tax cuts.

For several months the administration has prioritized New START. In October the treaty became Obama’s top foreign policy goal. In November ratification arguably became the administration’s top policy goal period as Obama’s point man, Vice President Biden, personally lobbied for the Republican Senate votes it requires and top officials from all departments, including the Pentagon, were made to testify in support.

In a series of increasingly desperate meetings, offers and counter-offers, the White House promised bigger and bigger sums of money for the goal of “nuclear weapons complex modernization” in exchange for the treaty’s ratification. Portions of the last publicly disclosed trade, presented when White House officials and military leadership flew to Arizona to brief Senator Jon Kyl, included upwards of $85 billion for the next ten years, a major portion of which would go to build huge new nuclear weapons factories. Because of this lavish funding increase for nuclear weapons devleopment and manufacturing the deal has made a farce out of any supposed disarmament measures that New START requires.

The Republican point man in these negotiations all along has been Senator and party Whip Jon Kyl. Arizona’s junior Senator Jon Kyl, has played the administration masterfully all along, and the White House has made more than a few serious mistakes only multiplying the autocratic power of the Senate’s minority. In portraying New START as an absolutely necessary issue of national security the Democrats thought they could outflank the Republicans on defense issues and force its ratification. Objectively, however, New START is not an important treaty and not necessary for US security. It’s requirements for the US and Russia are very modest, amounting to small reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons, requiring no warhead dismantlements, barring no qualitative improvements in weapons, and giving explicit blessing to other non-nuclear strategic weapons.

New START also hasn’t garnered any concern from the American public whose attention is rightly fixed on the effects of the Great Recession: joblessness, home foreclosures, debt, widening tears in the safety net, and reduced public services. Obama’s nuclear treaty only became important when the Democrats decided it would be their major foreign policy goal. Ultimately the administration painted themselves into a corner where they now must desperately seek virtually any means of achieving ratification, for they cannot simply drop a treaty that they have characterized as utterly necessary for national security. Thus in the Democrat’s political commitment to New START the Republicans have a gift that keeps on giving.

The curse of New START ratification is now metastasizing beyond deal making around nuclear weapons spending and even defense spending in general. It appears New START has become a bargaining chip in a much larger struggle over the nature of the American social contract. On November 29 Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Jon Kyl, joined by the forty other members of the Republican Senate caucus notified Majority leader Harry Reid saying, “we will not agree to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to any legislative item until the Senate has acted to fund the government and we have prevented the tax increase that is currently awaiting all American taxpayers.”ii

In other words no bills or other business (such as treaty ratification) will be considered until the Bush tax cuts are extended. This list of blocked legislation now also includes consideration of the Dream Act and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” bills that would benefit immigrants and gays and lesbians, two non-constituencies the Republicans would rather continue to use as scapegoats as they pull the nation’s politics further to the right. At the center of Republican demands though is taxes.

The Republicans seek a permanent extension to the Bush tax cuts which lowered rates on corporations and the wealthy, reduced the capital gains and dividends taxes, and reduced and then eliminated the estate tax. Doing so would, under any economic forecast, bankrupt the country in short order and require huge cuts to all discretionary spending, as well as raids of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. Cuts and “reforms” to social programs is of course an intended outcome of the Republican’s plan.

Even if a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts are agreed to, the results will not only be a continuation of an incredibly regressive era in US tax policy in which the burden of funding government has fallen on the shoulders of the bottom 50% of Americans and served to redistribute wealth upward while impoverishing many, but as Peter Orszag and William Gale accurately predicted in 2005; “the longer policy-makers wait to pay for the tax cuts […] the more harm is imposed on the future economy from intervening budget deficits and the more the nation risks a full-blown fiscal crisis.”iii The nation already experienced a full-blown fiscal crisis, fed in no small part by the economic conditions fostered by the Bush tax cuts. More so, the bi-partisan recommendations to cut and restructure spending and programs like Social Security coming from Democrats and Republicans is largely a structural consequence of the deficit created by the Bush tax cuts, wars, and economic meltdown.

In exchange for Obama’s nuclear treaty, and any possible movement on legislation like the Dream Act, Republicans are demanding that no increases in spending in next year’s budget, a scenario which would essentially adopt the Continuing Resolution which passed on October 1 as the final budget. The Continuing Resolution is a stop-gap measure that funds government for a short period of time at previous years levels. Conspicuous among the few exceptions within the Continuing Resolution was a major increase in nuclear weapons spending over 2010 levels, offered by the Obama administration to Jon Kyl as yet another ante for Republican votes for New START. This new no-spending demand, which the Republicans are now making a prerequisite for consideration of New START ratification, is nothing less than a major austerity plan. It would be practically required, however, if the Bush tax cuts are extended, even temporarily.

Jon Kyl, who has already rung billions of dollars from the administration for nuclear weapons modernization, is currently representing Senate Republicans in the tax cut negotiating meetings set up by Obama after Tuesday’s White House meeting. Kyl has become a power nexus unto himself, brokering huge spending increases for nuclear weapons, demanding extension of the Bush tax cuts, and in Arizona fashion opposing any measures that would do anything other than criminalize immigrants.

Given the pace at which this Washington horsetrading is moving, it’s impossible to say what the end result will be, what will pass and what will die in the Senate chamber. The pattern so far —capitulation by the Democrats to the militaristic and fiscally reckless agenda of the Senate Republicans— does not bode well for the future though. It would seem that fundamental policies bearing on the nature of the American social contract are now being sacrificed on the altar of the nuclear gods.

DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at:


i. Baker, Peter. “Republicans Hint at Hope for Russia Pact.” New York Times, November 30, 2010.


iii. Orszag, Peter and William Gale. “The Great Tax Shift.” The American Prospect, May 4, 2005.


Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at