Washington — Competing versions of legislation to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom threaten the independent panel's autonomy and mission, some commission supporters say.
But the lawmaker who advocates change at USCIRF cites duplication of efforts and a lack of cooperation with the State Department as reasons for introducing a Senate bill that would make significant changes to how the commission is authorized and operates.
"I am concerned that the lack of coordination between the State Department and USCIRF may undermine our government's efforts to promote international religious freedom by sending mixed messages to foreign governments and human-rights activists who are fighting to defend religious freedom in their countries," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who introduced a Senate measure, S2711, on July 30.
However, if legislation is not agreed upon by Sept. 30, the 15-year-old panel could shut down, at least until an authorization is enacted and signed by President Obama.
"Congress needs to act to extend the life of the commission," said Katrina Lantos Swett, commission chairwoman. She applauded support in the House, where a reauthorization bill preserves the status quo, and added "I look forward to similarly strong and bipartisan support when the Senate addresses reauthorization."
The commission was established under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, along with the parallel role of a U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department. For years, the two sides have been in contention at times, disappointing some religious liberty advocates. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted times when lack of coordination between the commission and the State Department resulted in strained relations with Turkey, Laos and Vietnam.
And USCIRF leadership had come under fire for allegedly "lavish travel arrangements," something Durbin said had been clarified in the 2011 reauthorization bill. However, the panel suffered an embezzlement loss of $217,000 by Carmelita Hines, a former office operations manager, Durbin said.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, said via email, "While the White House has not reviewed the (Senate) legislation, we support the Commission on International Religious Freedom."
The commission's work in calling attention to global victims of religious persecution is noticed worldwide, said Michael Cromartie, a vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served on the panel for six years, including two terms as chairman.
"When I visited some of the countries, I found that many of the people we met with were deeply grateful we were shining a light on their countries," Cromartie said. "The people suffering at the hands of their persecutors know about our work and were grateful" for the Americans' interest, he added.
Conversely, officials of nations identified as "Countries of Particular Concern" by USCIRF in its annual report on religious freedom "weren't happy," Cromartie added.
"I actually found that both the prisoners and government officials were more aware than your average American would be, and those are the ones we were trying to help anyway," he said.
On July 8, the House passed a five-year reauthorization bill, HR4653, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolff, R-Virginia, which had 22 Democrats and 19 Republicans as co-sponsors. The House bill offered minor adjustments to USCIRF's original authorizing legislation, along with the extended reauthorization period. In 2011, Congress reauthorized USCIRF for a three-year term.
A spokesman for Wolff asserted, "The House bill is a good bill. Mr. Wolf has worked in good faith to resolve the differences between the the two bills but to date has not found a receptive audience in the Senate."
The Durbin bill would impose a two-year reauthorization cycle, codify a shift in the panel's chairmanship between commissioners appointed by Democrats and Republicans, and discourage commissioners from speaking independently on sensitive issues. It would also require USCIRF to publish its annual religious freedom report only after a similar one from the State Department and permit the U.S. ambassasdor-at-large for international religious freedom to attend commission meetings.
Durbin also wants commission members to "reach consensus on statements" issued on behalf of USCIRF by requiring a supermajority of six of the nine commissioners to approve a statement to "ensure that at least one commissioner of each political party" approves every USCIRF statement.
Speaking on the Senate floor to introduce the bill, Durbin said he was worried some USCIRF members had invoked the name of the panel for what he called "partisan" purposes.
"For example, one commissioner recently appeared on Fox News' Hannity program, and, after identifying himself as a member of USCIRF, claimed that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had failed to take steps to combat Boko Haram in Nigeria and accused the Obama Administration of having 'no strategy' for combating terrorism," Durbin said in comments recorded in the Congressional Record. "(Another) commissioner testified in Congress on behalf of USCIRF and said that the Obama Administration 'sends a message to other countries that we don't care' about religious freedom," he added.
Some of the suggested reforms are troubling to James Standish, a longtime religious liberty advocate who served as USCIRF executive director from 2008 to 2009.
"The amendments contain some good, and some bad ideas. Ensuring USCIRF employees are protected against religious discrimination is, of course, a good step," he said. "Explicitly politicizing the appointment of staff disempowers the USCRIF executive director to build and manage (their) team and is a profound step in the wrong direction."
Durbin's press office did not respond to requests for comment. One USCIRF backer, however, praised the comments that apparently troubled the senator.
"I do not know which commissioners made these statements, but in my view they are precisely the kinds of judgments that commissioners should be making," said Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. "These kinds of judgments could and should be made with respect to any administration, including the present one."
Farr blasted the Durbin bill as one that "betrays an unfortunate ignorance of U.S. policy. The commission, even at its most effective, is not the central institution mandated to 'promote international religious freedom.' That is the State Department's job. And the senior official responsible for leading that policy does not (yet) exist, a sign of the remarkable indifference of this administration to the issue of religious persecution and its antidote, religious freedom."
The senior official Farr referred to is the U.S. ambassasdor-at-large for international religious freedom, a post that has been vacant since September. Last month, Obama nominated Rabbi David Saperstein to the ambassador-at-large position, a move awaiting Senate confirmation. Saperstein is highly regarded as a religious liberty advocate, though his positions on some domestic issues have troubled conservatives.