Gertrude Stein wrote her famous line “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in a 1913 poem and repeated it in other works throughout her life. She explained it as meaning “things are what they are,” that simply using the name of a thing evokes imagery and emotions. But what if we call it something else? Does it still evoke the same images or emotions?
That was Juliet’s question to Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare argued that it doesn’t matter what we call something; it is what it is. In today’s political world, that may no longer be true.
In fact, politicians have known for years that changing the name of something can completely change the political reaction to it. That’s why U.N. leaders referred to the Korean War as a “police action,” to avoid the distaste and possible opposition of a war-weary public. It’s the same reason conservatives refer to the federal estate tax as a “death tax.” Ordinary voters have trouble relating to people wealthy enough to have “estates,” but taxing death itself sounds unfair.
Modern political leaders have raised the name-change game to ever higher levels of sophisticated disinformation, referring to acts of terrorism as domestic crime, or calling a new tax on your utility bills a “carbon tax,” rather than the consumption tax that it is.
Changing the names of proposals sometimes has a far more devious, if not downright sinister, effect. It can not only change public opinion, but also can be a means to avoid the plain language of the law. For example, the U.S. Constitution provides that any treaty negotiated with a foreign government requires ratification by the Senate – so the President negotiated a deal with Iran, but called it an “agreement,” not a “treaty.” Does that mere choice of words really avoid the Constitutional necessity to obtain the advice and consent of the Senate?
Perhaps that’s why Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s recent tweet has been re-tweeted thousands of times in the last couple weeks: “We need to call war, war; we need to call terrorism, terrorism; we need to call treaties, treaties.” If the Senate doesn’t insist upon that, it may have greater implications in the next couple years than anyone imagines.
This year, the President promised the U.N. that he would commit the U.S. to a series of energy-crushing carbon restrictions that a future president could not repeal. That includes his stated goal of reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions by over 30 percent by 2030. To achieve that, the Administration has proposed a package of onerous regulations including expensive fuel efficiency mandates for vehicles, energy efficiency mandates for offices, houses, and even kitchen appliances, new methane regulations, an executive order to cut government’s energy use, and the centerpiece: the “Clean Power Plan” to kill the use of coal (our cheapest and most abundant energy source).
Here’s where political word play becomes an unprecedented legal maneuver. There is no chance that Congress would approve the unpopular Clean Power Plan in any normal vote. Zero. In fact, there is a good chance Congress may pass a specific resolution disapproving it, under a procedure called the Congressional Review Act. Obama will, of course, veto such a resolution, and congressional impasse will remain as what passes for normal these days. That sets the backdrop for the 21st annual U.N. climate conference, to convene in Paris November 30.
According to the organizing committee, the objective of the 2015 conference is to achieve, for the first time, a “binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.” The International Trade Union Confederation has called for the goal to be “zero carbon, zero poverty,” as if the one didn’t directly contradict the other.
Nevertheless, such an agreement could conceivably “bind” the U.S. to the carbon reduction targets Obama has laid out, without any vote in Congress, ever. Remember that treaties, like the Constitution itself, trump Acts of Congress. Would such an international agreement remain binding on the U.S. – and superior to other laws – even if it is not actually called a “treaty?”
Again, only if the U.S. Senate decides not to exercise the power it has under the Constitution. The Senate ought to define what constitutes a treaty, in unambiguous terms. It is what it is, no matter what you call it. As Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul herself, sings: “A Rose is Still a Rose.”
(A version of this column first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel November 13, 2015.)