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The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

The Commissioners are now more interested in maintaining their institution and their positions on the Commission than truly advancing the cause.
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There's an obvious axiom to the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," which says, "If it's broke and can't be fixed, get rid of it." This axiom is all the more valid if keeping "it" around is costing you money.

There's a debate going on in Congress right now over a little known commission established in 1998, called the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). It was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, along with the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF Office) and a new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom position at the Department of State.

The original purpose of the Commission was to be a sort of think tank that could assist the US Government and the Ambassador-at-Large in coming up with ideas and strategies on how to integrate the fundamental, universally recognized right to freedom of religion into overall US foreign policy and to foster greater respect for the right around the world.

The Congress at the time felt five years would be sufficient for USCIRF to undertake this laudable endeavor, so the legislation included a sunset clause that would have ended USCIRF's activities in 2003. Then, in 2002, USCIRF secured a second lease on life when Congress amended its sunset clause to September 30, 2011.

Now, Congress has given it yet another reprieve under the continuing resolution that is keeping the government funded until November 18th and there's yet another bill pending that would extend USCIRF for two years after that.

But as with so many good ideas and ideals in Washington, time distorts intentions, special interests are always lurking for opportunities to commandeer institutions for their personal benefit and commissions learn very quickly who their patrons are and then pander to them to stay in business, even after their usefulness has ended.

Such is the case with USCIRF.

While it was intended to funnel good ideas and strategic thinking to the U.S. Government through the Ambassador (who is an ex officio Commissioner), USCIRF now sees itself as a watchdog, traveling around the world in the name of the U.S. Government and denouncing foreign officials on their record of religious freedom, making public pronouncements about what U.S. religious freedom policy should be, and condemning the Department of State for failing to follow its lead.

Interestingly USCIRF has more resources and dedicated full-time staff than the Ambassador does at the Department of State.

In any event, by behaving this way, the Commissioners have actually undermined important religious freedom initiatives the Ambassador has undertaken. Yet they do it anyway, without coordinating with the Ambassador -- and sometimes despite the Ambassador's pleas to the contrary -- because they want to create the impression that they are relevant and to demonstrate to their benefactors that they are doing their masters' bidding.

Thus, as was inevitable, the Commissioners are now more interested in maintaining their institution and their positions on the Commission (along with the concomitant prestige and diplomatic passports it provides them) than truly advancing the cause.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the Commissioners represent the most populous religious faiths in the world. Throughout the history of the Commission there has been only one Hindu Commissioner (no longer) and only one Baha'i Commissioner. The vast majority have been Christians.

This is oxymoronic, given that it is primarily religious minorities who are persecuted for their faith around the world. Yet the religious denominations to which the Christian Commissioners belong have developed such strong ties to the Commission's congressional patrons over the years that they can get "their man" appointed repeatedly.

As a result, there is little turnover on, and few new ideas coming from, the Commission.

What is more, the Commission has even been sued for religious discrimination in its hiring and firing practices!

Even if term limits were to be imposed on Commissioners, those who have the leverage to influence and control the appointments would still make sure that their interests were represented rather than those who most need a voice. And as long as the patrons of the Commission want it to serve them as a mechanism by which to condemn the Department of State for not doing enough on religious freedom, while simultaneously depriving the Ambassador of the resources needed to do the work that office is supposed to accomplish, it does not matter how long USCIRF is around; the institution itself is inherently flawed and it will never be able to work cooperatively with the International Religious Freedom Office or the Ambassador at Large as it was originally intended.

Supporters of USIRF argue that eliminating the Commission would have a twofold effect: it would (1) eliminate a necessary watchdog over the actions of the State Department and (2) send a bad message to countries around the world that have not traditionally respected religious freedom as a human right that the U.S. Government no longer considers religious freedom to be a priority.

These arguments are specious. Offices in the Department of State such as the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons have been tremendously effective without oversight from a separate, outside commission. Besides, under the Constitution of the United States, Congress can and should provide oversight for Executive offices through hearings and investigations.

Moreover, reforms to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 currently pending in Congress would elevate the IRF Office at State by having it report directly to the Under Secretary for Democracy & Global Affairs, thus signaling to countries around the world that religious freedom continues to be a significant priority for U.S. foreign policy.

The reality is that there are eight very good reasons why USCIRF should no longer continue:

1. There is no compelling reason for the Commission -- it plays no vital role. When the International Religious Freedom Act was first drafted there was no Commission included in the initial draft; it was added to a subsequent draft to secure external support and votes in the House;

2. Recognizing the lack of a compelling role for the Commission, it originally had a sunset provision that would close it after five years;

3. The Commission produces a report that is duplicative and adds no value. The Department of State already produces a comprehensive report on the state of religious freedom around the world and the Commission's reports add little or no additional insight. In fact, USCIRF's reports are significantly taken from the State Department's reports;

4. The Commission has spent $4 million a year and has nothing effective or legitimate to show for it. Yet, looking at the hype the Commission generates about itself, one would think the Commission is doing the job that it thinks the IRF Office at the State Department is not doing. That's especially problematic, because there's no oversight for this rogue agency -- whose members are not elected and have no term limits and that thinks it can act in the place of the State Department and Congress;

5. Commissioners abuse travel privileges. USCIRF Commissioners have traveled first class and stayed in five-star hotels, while the Ambassador-at-Large and State Department officials are subject to strict travel restrictions that respect the use of tax-payer money. This kind of inappropriate use of tax-payer dollars cannot be justified in these financial times;

6. What's more, they've actually caused damage to American diplomatic relations and undermined initiatives of the International Religious Freedom Office. USCIRF's work on Saudi Arabia is a prime example. They set back the Department's work to purge Saudi textbooks, which are distributed worldwide, of discriminatory and inflammatory statements;

7. The Commission was intended to be a sort of think tank that could provide recommendations to the State Department and work cooperatively with the International Religious Freedom Office and the Ambassador-at-Large. That's why the Ambassador-at-Large is an Ex Officio Member of the Commission. Instead, the relationship has become adversarial because the Commission sees its role as that of a watchdog over the International Religious Freedom Office and the State Department. When its recommendations are not adopted, it becomes more shrill and strident and this is not conducive to effective dialogue, let alone cooperation;

8. It makes no sense for the watchdog to have more resources than the entity that is supposed to be doing the work. Better to give those resources to the entity with the proper mandate. Consider this analogy: Imagine a school principal hiring three teachers to teach a full course curriculum -- from math, science, foreign language and social studies to PE, literature and history to a student body of 1000 students. The teachers are overloaded, don't have the funds for teaching aids, materials or anything else to assist their teaching and are paid minimum wage. Now imagine the same principal hiring four consultants paid millions of dollars each with an almost unlimited expenditures budget to explain why the teachers aren't teaching better! Plus, the consultants have full access to the parents and school board.

Similarly, USCIRF's budget far exceeds that of the IRF Office even though the IRF Office is primarily involved in formulating policy to fix the problems, while USCIRF is engaged in press releases and traveling around the globe. The IRF Office currently employs eleven full-time staff members tasked with promoting and formulating policy to advance religious freedom around the world while USCIRF employs nearly 20 staff members and nine Commissioners to monitor United States policy abroad and publish reports that take most of its information from IRF Office publications.

However, whether USCIRF will survive after the expiration of the continuing resolution on November 18th is thankfully uncertain.

It seems one brave Senator, likely Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, has put a hold on the bill that would extend it for another two years. By doing this he runs the risk of reaping the ire of Illinoisans who care about religious freedom but who are not well-steeped in Washington politics and do not know the history of USCIRF.

Accordingly, they might question why the good Senator would try to end an entity whose mission is to foster religious freedom -- certainly a worthwhile and noble goal.

What they do not realize is that this courageous act will actually benefit those very objectives while saving taxpayers nearly $4 million per year in this era of fiscal paucity. USCIRF is an inherently flawed governmental institution that cannot be fixed and should be allowed to ride off into the sunset.

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