Trent Lott explains support for treaty he once said would create ‘UN on steroids’

Steven Nelson Associate Editor
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Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told The Daily Caller on Monday that he isn’t a hypocrite for lobbying in favor of a treaty he emphatically denounced as recently as 2007.

Lott said that he no longer believes the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty — would “cede our national sovereignty, both militarily and economically,” as he said five years ago when the issue was last brought before the Senate.

The treaty would grant the United Nations unprecedented taxing authority over American companies by transferring permitting and royalty payments currently made to the U.S. government for offshore drilling to the International Seabed Authority, a U.N.-created agency that would have the power to redistribute billions of dollars to other countries.

It would also commit the United States to accept international arbitration of maritime disputes.

For three decades, the United States has declined to sign on.

“Over time, circumstances change,” Lott told TheDC. “The world has changed from an economic and military standpoint. … Some people say ‘we have the biggest, baddest navy fleet in the world, we’ll go and do what we want to,’ [but] we ought to be careful about how we think about that.”

Lott founded the Breaux Lott Leadership Group with former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux in 2008. Last month The Heritage Foundation reported that Lott’s firm collected $80,000 in fees the first quarter of 2012 from the Shell Oil Company, to lobby on issues including support for the treaty’s ratification. Pike Associates also paid Lott’s firm $30,000 to support the treaty, according to disclosure forms.

“My concerns are not about sovereignty,” Lott told TheDC, explaining that he still does have some reservations about the treaty. “My concerns are still in the area where they were in the past,” he said, specifically mentioning the distribution of royalties from companies operating offshore.

“I thought there were many flaws in it, and so did President Reagan” in the 1980s, he said. “Most were answered in the ’80s, but there still were areas that were of concern. As late as 2007, there were still concerns.”

“Pentagon officials have generally been supportive,” explained Lott, who added, “I always had doubts: Were they doing that because that was the position of the commander in chief?”

“Earlier this year people came to me and asked if I could support it,” Lott said. After reviewing the treaty’s history, he said, “I finally concluded that it was time to go ahead and join the Law of the Sea conference.”

Lott said that he knows sitting Republican senators who support the treaty, but said, “I don’t want to identify them” because “they’re going to be savaged by The Heritage Foundation.”

Republican senators who have openly supported ratification include Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The treaty goes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday morning. It is supported by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but is opposed by most Republicans in Congress. The committee will likely hold additional hearings this year.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has praised Lott’s advocacy in support of ratification, saying, “Seeing Trent Lott in the room, I feel a hell of a lot better about the chances for ratification.”

Critics say ratification could harm American interests, by making military and economic actions dependent on international consensus. One fear is that environmentalists could bring oceanic air and water pollution before the U.N. An additional concern is that the U.S. would provide 25 percent of the operating costs, but would not receive proportional representation.

Lott, who once said the treaty would “create a huge U.N. bureaucracy” that would “undermine U.S. military and intelligence operations” and “be a huge problem in terms of navigational rights,” said his concerns have mostly been resolved.

International disputes, including oil drilling in the Arctic and territorial claims on a cluster of islands in the South China Sea, would be more appropriately addressed if the U.S. ratified the treaty, Lott said.

In the South China Sea, “there is clear evidence that the Chinese and even the Thais are making claims or extending jurisdiction or taking actions, where we don’t have enough opportunity to question that or push back on that,” Lott said. The sparsely populated islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines — but not by Thailand.

Lott said he doesn’t know when the full Senate will vote on ratification. “I know from experience that the majority leader’s most difficult problem is time. … Something like this would take some time,” he said. “It could come up this year. Some think it could come up before the election, some think that it would probably have to come up in the lame duck session.”

A letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, currently signed by 26 Senate Republicans, intentionally parrots a letter of opposition circulated by Lott in 2007, according to a Senate staffer who provided TheDC with copies of the letters.

“We are writing to let you know that we believe this Convention reflects political, economic, and ideological assumptions which are inconsistent with American values and sovereignty,” says the 2012 letter.

“By its current terms, the Law of the Sea Convention encompasses economic and technology interests in the deep sea, redistribution of wealth from developed to undeveloped nations, freedom of navigation in the deep sea and exclusive economic zones which may impact maritime security, and environmental regulation over virtually all sources of pollution.”

The letter adds: “[W]e are troubled that compulsory dispute resolution could pertain to public and private activities including law enforcement, maritime security, business operations, and nonmilitary activities performed aboard military vessels.”

The Senate letter’s twenty-six GOP signers include Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Thune of South Dakota.

Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham told TheDC that he finds Lott’s professed evolution on the issue unconvincing. “In 2007, Sen. Lott said he has studied seafaring treaties since law school and was opposed,” said Needham.

“I cannot imagine what has changed.”

Watch Lott’s comments from 2007:

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