COEUR d’ALENE — Idaho’s newest congressman, Rep. Russ Fulcher, said he hadn’t heard anything from his constituents about NATO before or since the NATO Support Act came up for a vote on Tuesday.
He was surprised that the topic came up at all.
Everything on Capitol Hill the past few weeks had been about the government shutdown, he said, in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. The shutdown lasted until a breakthrough agreement announced by President Donald Trump on Friday.
On Thursday Fulcher said, “We haven’t done anything that wasn’t affiliated with border security or the shutdown. A NATO vote? Where’d that come from?”
“It made the spider sense tingle,” he added.
The freshman congressman said that as he read the bill en route to cast his vote, he noticed that more than 200 votes had already been cast in favor, with none against. However, Fulcher said the more he read, the more concerned he grew.
In its third section, the bill claimed to supersede the Supreme Court’s 1979 action in Goldwater v. Carter. The court dismissed Sen. Barry Goldwater’s lawsuit, which allowed President Jimmy Carter to unilaterally withdraw the U.S. from its treaty with Taiwan, in order to form normal diplomatic relations with Communist China.
In its fourth section, the bill pledged the U.S. to adhere to the exact terms of the NATO treaty as it stands today.
Fulcher said he consulted with his chief of staff, former state Sen. Cliff Bayer, and some congressional colleagues. “Am I seeing this right?” he asked Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. Fulcher said once he saw that the bill was a bad deal for the U.S., he decided to cast the first ‘nay’ vote.
As a rookie congressman, Fulcher said he felt a bit awkward about casting the first vote against the bill.
“You know what, it feels weird. But I wasn’t elected to follow the herd. And in this case I think it was wise not to.”
He knew the ‘nays’ couldn’t prevail, “but I still thought you know, we can raise a flag. That’s what happened ultimately.”
Fulcher said a lot of his colleagues now see that the bill wasn’t so much designed to affirm NATO as to block the president from negotiating changes to NATO.
“There was some grousing in the cloakroom behind the chamber.”
Fulcher predicted that “If this came up again you wouldn’t see the same mix. Maybe a party-line run.” The final vote “would look a lot different,” he said.
In February 2016, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee passed then-precinct committeeman Bjorn Handeen’s resolution calling on Sen. Jim Risch and Congress to withdraw the U.S. from the NATO alliance. Trump has sometimes expressed sentiments in the same direction. On Aug. 21, 2018, he said he would be willing to withdraw from NATO over non-payment of its members.
“The United States is paying close to 90 percent of the costs of protecting Europe,” said the president in Charleston, W.Va.
Fulcher said he supports the U.S. remaining in NATO. However, the language of the NATO Support Act would have locked the U.S. into paying for the alliance’s defense costs regardless of whether its European member nations paid their fair share, he said.
“We’ve got a real problem. We’re financing the defense of not just our own nation but Western Europe for the most part. There’s at least 20-some countries that haven’t been contributing as they had promised. That told me right there that if we lock ourselves into that promise, we’re obligated to it whether they execute on their promise or not.”
Director of the Martin Institute and chair of international studies at the University of Idaho, Bill Smith, said Thursday that NATO does indeed have a problem.
Smith said in 2014 other NATO member states pledged to increase their defense budgets to equal 2 percent of their respective GDPs by 2024. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had called on NATO allies to increase their spending prior to 2014, but “Russian aggression made the need more tangible and prompted action on it,” Smith said. He predicted that Trump’s demands and criticisms of the alliance would ensure that NATO allies continue to increase their own defense spending.
If Trump moved to withdraw the U.S. from the trans-Atlantic alliance, Fulcher said he’d be very wary before supporting the president. He also said that he sees NATO’s value in containing Russia, which he described as a “bad actor.” Fulcher admitted his foreign policy expertise still has room to grow, but he said that Russia’s behavior in recent years shows that NATO still has an important role to play in American foreign policy.
Smith agreed that NATO still serves that function.
“It has provided member states reassurance especially since 2014 when Russia began acting more aggressively in and around national air space and maritime territory, including harassing U.S. targets operating in the region,” and when Russia annexed Crimea, Smith said.
NATO is the only post-World War II institution that continues to enjoy broad bipartisan support, he said. However, with Trump’s criticism of the alliance, “something like the NATO Support Act was likely to reiterate the broad support it still has,” he said.
To read the bill, go to http://bit.ly/2RiPWAS.
Author: Judd Wilson
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