Editorial: Don’t Pre-empt Code of Conduct

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The White House is justifiably miffed at a provision in the House version of the defense authorization bill that would hamper its ability to negotiate a code of conduct for spacefaring nations.

The House measure, introduced as an amendment to the bill, would bar any expenditure of U.S. government funds to implement or comply with a space code of conduct that has not been ratified by the U.S. Senate or authorized in statute. It reflects longstanding suspicions voiced by Republican lawmakers that signing such a code would limit the military’s freedom to operate in space.

Officials with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama emphasize that the code would be nonbinding and say it would enhance U.S. security by encouraging common-sense responsible behavior by spacefaring nations. Among other things, they say, it would reduce the chances of debris-causing events or misunderstandings between nations that could escalate, with adverse consequences.

Early this year, however, the White House balked at signing a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities originally published by the European Union (EU) in 2008 and revised in 2010. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried hard to put a positive-sounding spin on that move, trumpeting it as a decision to work with the EU and others to develop a code of conduct for spacefaring nations. But an earlier unscripted remark by a State Department official betrayed what really happened: The draft European document was rejected because it was too restrictive.

That should have provided at least some reassurance to skeptics on Capitol Hill, who had cited an assessment by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff that the EU code would have a measurable impact on the way the military operates in space. Evidently, it did not.

In a statement issued shortly after Mrs. Clinton’s Jan. 17 announcement, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, charged that the administration intended to enter into an “EU Code of Conduct-type space arms control regime” that could compromise the nation’s space capabilities — both military and commercial — and put thousands of jobs at risk. Rep. Turner also said the president lacks the authority to enter into that type of arms control agreement without congressional approval.

Mrs. Clinton stressed that the U.S. government would not sign a code of conduct that limits the ability of the military to conduct space activities, but at the same time she muddied the picture a bit in selling the White House’s rejection of the EU code as an endorsement, albeit a qualified one.

But characterizing the code as an “arms control regime” is misleading; insisting on Senate ratification goes even further by falsely implying that it would carry the legally binding force of a formal treaty.

Rep. Turner and like-minded colleagues have every right to be kept apprised of administration progress in negotiating a space code of conduct. The White House, for its part, should proactively consult with lawmakers as it works to craft rules for space activity that might have implications for U.S. military operations.

The authorization bill language related to the code simply goes too far: It would effectively pre-empt work on a document that, if properly crafted, could have valuable benefits not just for all spacefaring nations but also specifically for the U.S. military — which is more reliant on space than any other. More generally, as the White House noted in its threat to veto the bill over numerous provisions, it would infringe on the president’s prerogative to conduct U.S. foreign relations.

The Senate should make sure that this misguided provision does not make it to the president’s desk for signature, either as part of the defense authorization or in any other bill.