At 11th Hour, Senate Re-Authorizes US Religious Freedom Commission

December 14, 2011 - 10:18 PM
Iraq church

Iraqi policemen stand guard outside a Protestant church in Baghdad in September 2010. The USCIRF has for more than a decade drawn attention to, and advised the U.S. government on, the plight of persecuted religious minorities around the world. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

(CNSNews.com) – The Senate has quietly passed legislation reauthorizing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, just days before the independent statutory watchdog would have been forced to shut down.

On Tuesday, almost three months after the bill was passed by the House of Representatives and forwarded to the Senate, a hold was lifted, an amendment passed, and the legislation approved by voice vote.

The amendment, proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), limits the appointment of the USCIRF’s unpaid commissioners to a maximum of two, two-year terms. The term of any current commissioner who has served at least two full terms will expire 90 days after the legislation is enacted.

The amendment also lays down that commissioners are subject to federal regulations covering travel, lodging and per diem expenses, and authorizes any USCIRF employee who has filed a discrimination complaint to complete the proceedings.

The move came three days before the commission would have had to close its doors. Temporary reauthorization was included in continuing resolutions funding the federal government, the latest of which expires on Friday.

The commission recently began formal shut-down procedures, amid a chorus of concern by advocacy groups in the U.S. and abroad about the looming closure of a body tasked to ensure that the U.S. government makes the promotion of religious freedom a foreign policy priority.

USCIRF logo

Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, is believed to be the senator responsible for the three-month hold-up, an issue reportedly related to a dispute over funding for a prison in his home state, Illinois.

The bill passed by the House in mid-September reduces the USCIRF’s annual budget from more than $4 million to $3 million. It also reduced the number of commissioners from nine to five. The Senate version restored the number of commissioners to nine, but upheld the budget cut.

Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act which created the commission, three commissioners were appointed by the president, two by congressional leaders of the president’s party, and four by congressional leaders of the party not in the White House.