House Passes Bipartisan Bill Aimed at Putting State Department ‘Back on the Books’

July 18, 2012 - 4:57 AM

Ros-Lehtinen

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and ranking Democrat Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.) listen to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she testifies before the committee on March 1, 2011. (Photo: House Foreign Affairs Committee)

(CNSNews.com) – In a bipartisan bid to reassert congressional influence in the executive branch’s exercise of foreign policy, the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening passed State Department authorization legislation free of politically contentious provisions that have helped to scupper previous bills for almost a decade.

The Foreign Relations Authorization Act (H.R. 6018), which authorizes the State Department, Peace Corps and U.S. international broadcasting for fiscal year 2013, was called up under a suspension of House rules and passed by a 333-61 vote.

It provides $1.55 billion for assessed contributions to the United Nations and other international organizations, and $1.828 billion for peacekeeping, somewhat below the administration’s requests for $1.57 billion and $2.098 respectively.

International broadcasting operations get $744.5 million and the Peace Corps, $375 million.

The State Department has been operating without congressional authorization since 2002.  Since then, authorization bills have not made it into law, largely because of the inclusion of provisions that split lawmakers along party lines.

For instance last year’s bill, 294 pages long, contained provisions setting conditions on U.N. aid to certain countries, for reasons including religious persecution, inadequate counterterror cooperation and opposition to U.S. stances at the United Nations.

The 2012 bill did not even reach the full House for a vote.

The legislation that passed on Tuesday, just 76 pages long, omitted provisions likely to generate opposition. It also does not include any authorization for foreign aid.

Of the 61 “no” votes, 60 came from Republicans and the 61st from New York Democrat Rep. Paul Tonko.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – which marked up the bill by voice vote two weeks ago – described it Tuesday as “carefully targeted” and said it would “help put the State Department back on the books for the first time in a decade.”

The lack of authorities for almost 10 years “has eroded Congress’s foreign policy leverage with the Department of State,” she told the House. “By enacting this bill, Congress will repair this lapse, strengthen our foreign policy oversight, and fulfill our obligations to the American public.”

Ros-Lehtinen said the bill “contains important management reforms to increase the efficiency, accountability, and safety of our personnel overseas.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), said the bill was “not perfect,” as the amounts authorized were well below the levels requested by the administration and “lower than what I think is needed to exert strong and effective leadership.”

Nonetheless, he said Ros-Lehtinen and her staff had “worked with us diligently over the past few weeks to make the changes necessary to arrive at a text that we can support.”

Among other things, the bill:

--Authorizes the State Department’s center for strategic counterterrorism communications (CSCC), created under presidential executive order last year with the aim of using the Internet to monitor narratives driving terrorism and developing strategies to counter the messaging of terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda and affiliates. The interagency CSCC is headed by Alberto Fernandez, a former ambassador to Equatorial Guinea who has held diplomatic posts across the Middle East and in Central America.

--Authorizes the establishment in the State Department of a coordinator for cyber issues and requires the secretary of state to submit a one-time report on the department’s cybersecurity efforts and a list of “countries of cybersecurity concern.”

--Clarifies provisions in existing law relating to the prohibition of transactions with state sponsors of terrorism, making it clear that they extend to nationals of countries which have had substantive contacts with state-sponsors, sufficient to “give reasonable grounds for raising risk of diversion.”

--Extends the scope of the State Department’s existing Rewards for Justice beyond terrorists, to additionally cover members of transnational organized crime groups and individuals wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who authored the Rewards for Justice provision, said earlier it would target the likes of Lord’s Resistance Army leader, Joseph Kony.