The long battle to reauthorize the United Stations Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) appears to be nearing an end.
On Sept. 30 the U.S. Senate passed a four-year reauthorization that largely maintains USCIRF’s current structure and direction. USCIRF authorization was set to expire Sept. 30, but Congress included an extension in the stop-gap funding bill it passed Sept. 30, keeping USCIRF’s doors open until the House can debate the Senate measure this week.
The legislation funds USCIRF at $3.5 million annually and is deficit neutral. It earned bipartisan praise, including from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the two senators who filed vastly different reauthorization bills in July and August.
“The commission has been a steadfast champion of this ‘first freedom’ and a reliable voice for the oppressed and marginalized,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “I welcome this four-year authorization which would allow the commission to focus, without distraction, on their critical mandate at precisely the time it’s most needed,”
The legislation comes after more than a year of wrangling on the staff level. After negotiations broke down in December 2014, Congress approved a nine-month extension to get USCIRF through the rest of the fiscal year. Recently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved the bipartisan compromise to authorize USCIRF until 2019.
The bill is close to a clean reauthorization and does not include the reforms Rubio sought in his bill. It also does not include the reforms Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wanted, elements of which the international religious freedom community said would act as “poison pills” to the commission.
Instead, the legislation gives the commission 60 days to craft a strategic plan and conduct an organizational review. A unanimous commission vote (or a majority of both party appointees) would enact any proposed changes – such as designating ISIS, Boko Haram, and other non-state actors as “countries of particular concern.”
Durbin said he is proud of the compromise that will help “foster bipartisan consensus” and discourage partisanship on the commission.
USCIRF itself released a unanimous statement in support of the bill – a notable accomplishment, since the nine commissioners have not always agreed on the various reauthorization approaches.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, praised the compromise and said it wouldn’t have happened without Rubio’s involvement: “Against many obstacles, Senator Rubio fought for the protection of religious freedom around the world, and I am grateful for his leadership on this from start to finish.”
Regardless of how the strategic plan develops, USCIRF is in for changes: Next spring both Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett, who have alternated chairing the commission since 2012, will drop off due to term limits. Executive director Jackie Wolcott has submitted her resignation, although she agreed to stay until Dec. 31 or until the commission hires a replacement.
Congress created USCIRF in 1998 as an independent, government-funded body to provide recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress on religious liberty conditions around the world.
Ambassador John Hanford, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from 2002 to 2009, told me it’s a relief to have USCIRF well funded so it can focus on its tasks: “Their work is more important than ever.”
Hanford, who helped write the legislation creating the commission, said he was disappointed to see the compromise did not include needed provisions that would have bolstered the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. He said his successor, Ambassador David Saperstein, does not have adequate resources, and the original version of the House bill – filed by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. – would have addressed those problems.
“Unfortunately, the position has been downgraded and the staff has been slashed under this administration,” Hanford said. “It’s a strange situation where you have the office tasked with the incredible challenge of actually advancing religious freedom in dozens of countries around the world being smaller and far less funded than the commission, whose function is to offer policy recommendations.”
Another stripped provision would have addressed conflicts of interest on the commission. One commissioner, James Zogby, has come under recent scrutiny for his business dealings with the government of Saudi Arabia, a country over which USCIRF provides oversight and recommendations.