Budget talks, and perhaps politics, threaten U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Is it possible Congress may shut down the government body created to promote international religious freedom – a pet issue … Continued

Is it possible Congress may shut down the government body created to promote international religious freedom – a pet issue of conservative evangelical Christians in particular – even as most of our presidential candidates come from that community? 

If it’s not reauthorized by the U.S. Senate in the next few days, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom may vanish. It was created 13 years ago as part of a broad act to promote religious freedom overseas, and reflected the rising influence of religious conservatives who still call religious freedom one of their top top priorities. 

But since then the USCIRF has sometimes been controversial. Some human rights activists have winced at what some see as a disproportionate focus on the persecution of Christians globally. Others feel its commissioners’ globe-trotting can confuse people overseas as to whether it does or does not speak for the White House (it does not). Many felt it has too little accountability and have lobbied for years for an inspector general report. When a Muslim staffer filed an EEOC complaint a few years ago and the commissioners argued that the EEOC didn’t apply to the commission, talks on the Hill escalated about how to tighten up the office. 

But these complaints were largely coming from religious freedom advocates hoping to improve efforts that many say have been meager under Republican and Democrat presidents. Last week, many were taken by surprise when the budget-cutting mood of 2011 threatened the commission.

Saying it was the only way to keep USCIRF alive and get a yes vote in the Senate, House representatives passed a measure that would whack USCIRF’s budget from more than $4 million a year to $3 million and cut the number of commissioners from nine to five. In clear recognition of the complaints about accountability, the bill that passed called for a comptroller general assessment and clarified that USCIRF employees are protected by all employment discrimination laws. 

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a creator of the original 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, testifying last week, slammed Washington as being tone-deaf to the entire issue:

 “ …Sadly, the constituency for human rights and religious freedom issues is growing smaller and smaller in Washington and in this Congress. These issues have become second-class citizens in this Congress and in this town. There are no big law firms downtown. They’re representing the Saudis. They’re representing the Chinese. They’re representing filth and garbage in certain cases, but no one represents human rights and religious freedom. So there are all the Members who have agonized and pushed and pulled and want to kill this.”

It’s not clear what happens now. I haven’t been able to get a clear answer from folks on the Senate side, but Congress is out next week and the commission is set to sunset on Sept. 30, which means a vote is needed in the next two days. Some folks tell me it could be squeaked in through some Senate procedure next week or even as late as the fall, but that would go outside the regular schedule.

My sources say the White House has not lobbied on this issue, as they have been busy focusing on their own, expanded religious freedom efforts, including a few new working groups and a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Some conservatives believe Democrats would like to see the commission vanish because of its reputation as too-focused on Christian victims. But the partisan lines aren’t clear here. All the 21 House members who voted against reauthorizing the commission last week were Republicans, and the primary calls for reform in the Senate were also from the GOP.


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