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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
‘Cliff’ Bill Removes Arms Control Hurdle

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Tom Z. Collina

A little-noticed section in the bill to avoid the “fiscal cliff” alters language in another recently enacted law that would have prevented the United States from reducing the size of its strategic arsenal. The Obama administration had objected to the original language, arguing that it represented an unconstitutional constraint on presidential authority.

The fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act had required the president to certify that Russia is “in compliance with its arms control obligations with the United States” before the United States reduces the number of its strategic delivery systems. The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) requires such reductions.

In the Jan. 2 statement that Obama issued as he signed the defense bill into law, he called the language “deeply problematic,” saying it would “impede the fulfillment of future U.S. obligations agreed to” in New START and “hinder the Executive [Branch]’s ability to determine an appropriate nuclear force structure.”

According to congressional aides, State Department staff raised concerns at the last minute about the language because the United States has been unable to certify that Russia is in compliance with some of its obligations under several arms control treaties, in particular, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. However, the State Department has certified that Moscow is in compliance with its strategic arms control commitments, such as the ones made in New START. (See ACT, September 2012.)

Obama signed the defense bill after congressional leaders agreed to include a fix in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which partially averted the combination of tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff.

That bill changes two words in the defense authorization act’s certification requirement. The president now must certify “whether” Russia is in compliance with its “strategic” arms control commitments, not “that” Russia is in compliance with all its arms control commitments.