WASHINGTON-After four months of struggle, Congress approved the reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, hours before the commission was set to shut down. The House approved the final reauthorization of USCIRF by a voice vote Friday, in a bill that will reduce the commission's budget and remove most of the current commissioners.
The 13-year-old commission, which monitors abuses of religious freedom abroad, seemed bound for the dustbin after Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., one of the top Democrats in the Senate, placed a secret hold on the House-passed legislation reauthorizing USCIRF.
The House had passed the reauthorization almost unanimously in September, but Durbin kept his hold on the bill until recently, when he added an amendment limiting terms of the commissioners. On Tuesday night, the Senate quickly passed the bill by unanimous consent. On Wednesday morning, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer urged religious freedom advocates to press the House for "swift passage," after the Senate had sat on the legislation for months.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who co-wrote the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 that created the commission as well as the current legislation reauthorizing it, was angered with Durbin's last-minute change to the bill, calling it akin to "blackmail" (see "Senate says yes," Dec. 15). Because the commission was about to expire, the House was essentially forced to accept Durbin's amendment. The new bill authorizes USCIRF until 2014.
Religious freedom advocates applauded the "bipartisan reauthorization."
"Pressure from concerned citizens stopped the anonymous hold and produced cooperation in acknowledging the importance of the greater good of millions of vulnerable believers around the world," said the Institute on Religion and Democracy's Faith McDonnell in a statement.
But some religious freedom advocates weren't pleased with the Durbin amendment. "The last-second timing of this amendment and the provisions within the amendment clearly indicate that Sen. Durbin has no reservations about playing games with the very serious issue of religious persecution," said International Christian Concern's Isaac Six in a statement. "This amendment will rid the commission of its most experienced advisors and ultimately cripple its effectiveness at addressing violations of religious liberty."
But one USCIRF commissioner said Wednesday that term limits should not be a make-or-break issue. "The commission is more important than the commissioners," said Richard Land, a commissioner who has served since 2001 and who heads up the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. The commissioners are unpaid, but USCIRF covers their trips around the world to research religious liberty abuses.
The new legislation reauthorizing the commission imposes big changes. The bill cuts the USCIRF's budget from $4 million to $3 million. Durbin's amendment places two two-year term limits on commissioners, which will eliminate almost all of the current commissioners. The amendment also places the commissioners under the same travel restrictions as State Department employees, which International Christian Concern said could limit their ability to travel to certain areas where religious freedom abuses are acute.
Leaders from both parties in Congress and the president appoint members to the commission.