WASHINGTON-The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom received an eleventh-hour reprieve before it was supposed to shut down, but the reprieve may be temporary. On Tuesday night the Senate voted to reauthorize the commission and sent the bill to the House, but a Senate Democrat added an unexpected amendment that Republican House members do not like. The commission is set to shut down Friday unless both chambers can come to an agreement.
The new amendment is "bad," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who authored the reauthorization of the commission and has been in the middle of a squabble with the Senate over final passage. The 13-year-old commission travels the world and issues reports each year on abuses of religious freedom and provides recommendations to the State Department on sanctions and the like. About the Senate's move to add an amendment to the reauthorization days before the commission is set to shut down and the House leaves town, Wolf said, "They call that blackmail in different places."
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who along with Wolf helped write the original 1998 legislation that created the commission, said, "There are people who are trying to kill this commission." Smith said President Bill Clinton opposed the creation of the commission and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn't want it around now, either. The State Department hasn't undertaken many of the commission's recommendations in recent years, but State has made progress in beating back the "defamation" resolutions that come up regularly in various UN bodies, resolutions that the commission has also vocally opposed.
"Religious freedom is not a priority" at the State Department, said Smith. "Homosexual rights and abortion rights" are priorities, he said, referring to the Obama administration's recent push to put gay rights at the top of its global human rights agenda. (See "Rights and wrongs," by Jamie Dean, Dec. 9.)
Smith said he had recently met with ambassadors from African countries who found their funding was at risk over "marriage equality." "We don't do that for religious freedom," Smith said. "We don't do that for human trafficking."
The House reauthorized the commission almost unanimously in September, and the bill's backers expected the reauthorization to sail through the Senate, too. But Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) placed a secret hold on the bill, which many thought spelled doom for the commission, because he placed the hold soon before the commission was set to expire, on Sept 30.
"One senator wanted pork … and because of this, it's tied this thing up for four months," said Wolf. "I don't think it's appropriate." Durbin's press office did not return a request for comment.
Lawmakers temporarily reauthorized the commission by slipping it into the continuing resolutions, the government spending bills that Congress has been passing every couple months in lieu of appropriations. Then Tuesday, after months of back and forth, the Senate passed the stand-alone reauthorization by unanimous consent, with an amendment from Durbin. The amendment mainly limits commissioners to two two-year terms, which would force out most of the current commissioners.
"I don't have any problem with term limits," said Richard Land, a commissioner who is also the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. Land has served as a commissioner since 2001. If term limits are the "price of the commission," he said, "The commission is more important than the commissioners."
The original reauthorization bill that passed the House already cut the commission's budget from $4 million to $3 million and sliced the number of commissioners from nine to five.