WASHINGTON ― Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), the author of an amendment to a spending bill that would cut funding to a respected Islamic international aid charity, was unexpectedly absent from the House floor on Thursday night, failing to offer the amendment for a vote.
The congressman told HuffPost he left Washington on Thursday ahead of the scheduled vote to prepare for Hurricane Irma, which is expected to impact his district on Florida’s eastern coast in the coming days. But opponents of the amendment interpreted DeSantis’ absence as a triumph of their coordinated efforts to defeat an amendment they said was motivated by Islamophobia.
The amendment, tacked onto a consolidated appropriations bill, would have prohibited the State Department from funding for the nonprofit Islamic Relief Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that delivers emergency aid and development assistance around the world. The group’s American affiliate, Islamic Relief USA (which would not have been impacted by the amendment), is currently providing assistance to Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston, Texas, and the surrounding areas.
DeSantis did not respond to a question about whether he would accept help from the group for victims of the the hurricane that is expected to hit Florida.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim members of Congress, slammed the drafted amendment as a discriminatory effort to delegitimize a group that describes itself as inspired by the Islamic faith. “This amendment singles out IRW for its religious affiliation. This is another attempt to criminalize and demonize organizations that are affiliated with the Muslim community,” he wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter that his office provided to HuffPost and circulated to all members of the House on Thursday ahead of the anticipated vote.
Nearly 50 of the world’s most prominent humanitarian aid groups opposed DeSantis’ amendment. The list of organizations, provided by Ellison’s office, included Catholic Relief Services, CARE, Oxfam, HIAS, Mercy Corps, Church World Service, Refugees International, and InterAction, a coalition of almost 200 nonprofits in the U.S.
“We are humbled by the strength and diversity of support we have been given by people who really know what we are about and the values we stand for,” IRW said in a statement on Friday.
DeSantis told HuffPost he remains “committed to blocking taxpayer funds for organizations with ties to terrorist groups such as Hamas.” He did not present evidence for his allegation that the charity has ties to terrorism but appears to be referencing past unfounded accusations.
In 2014, Israel and the United Arab Emirates accused IRW of ties to terrorism. The group denied the allegations and launched an internal investigation and hired outside consultants to review its work. The audit produced no evidence to support the allegations, the group said at the time. More recently, the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank headed by Frank Gaffney, accused IRW of working with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
According to Ellison, the IRW has been audited over 500 times. “None of the allegations have been demonstrated,” Ellison wrote in the letter to his House colleagues.
DeSantis’ amendment, Ellison said, would effectively punish the charity without first proving guilt. “Because the audits and courts could not find IRW guilty of wrongdoing, Rep. DeSantis wants us to find IRW guilty via legislative means, and punish them for it. This is a bill of attainder and is unconstitutional,” Ellison wrote.
“Because the audits and courts could not find IRW guilty of wrongdoing, Rep. DeSantis wants us to find IRW guilty via legislative means, and punish them for it. This is a bill of attainder and is unconstitutional.”
If DeSantis had brought the amendment to the floor, he would have forced Republicans to take a difficult vote on a measure criticized as Islamophobic at a time when some members of the party are trying to distance themselves from President Donald Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who yields some control over which amendments receive a vote, referred HuffPost to the House Rules Committee when asked about Ryan’s position on pulling funds from the group. Committee spokeswoman Caroline Boothe would not say whether the Rules Committee opposed the amendment.
Founded in the United Kingdom, IRW has worked in over 30 countries, according to the group’s website. The group has United Nations consultative status, takes part in the United Kingdom Disasters Emergency Committee, and works with prominent aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and the Red Cross, Ellison noted in the letter.
In addition to the U.S., the IRW currently receives funding from the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNICEF, UN Women, the European Community Humanitarian Office, the governments of Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The U.S. government has not placed any restrictions or designations on the group. Islamic Relief-USA is one of several organizations included in the federal government’s workplace charitable giving program.
“It’s inconceivable that IRW could receive such broad support if it funded or had links to terrorism,” Ellison wrote.