[Congressional Record Volume 157, Number 193 (Thursday, December 15, 2011)]
[Senate]
[Pages S8673-S8674]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]




UNITED STATES COMMISSION ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REFORM AND 
                      REAUTHORIZATION ACT OF 2011

  Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I rise in support of H.R. 2867, the United 
States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and 
Reauthorization Act of 2011.
  Many of our Nation's Founders fled religious persecution, and they 
placed great importance on religious freedom. George Washington summed 
up the prevailing view when he said, ``In this land of equal liberty, 
it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets will not forfeit the 
protection of the laws.''
  In 1791, the first amendment of the Constitution was ratified, 
enshrining freedom of religion as the ``First Freedom'' of all 
Americans. The first amendment became an inspiration to people all over 
the world who struggle to throw off the yoke of religious persecution.
  Throughout our history, the United States has sought to protect and 
promote the fundamental human right of religious freedom at home and 
around the world. Just last week, on December 10, we celebrated Human 
Rights Day, the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human 
Rights. After World War II, under Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership, the 
United States spearheaded the ratification of the Universal 
Declaration, which recognized freedom of religion as a fundamental 
right of all people.
  As the founding chairman of the first-ever Senate subcommittee 
focused on human rights, I am deeply committed to protecting religious 
freedom, and I strongly support the mission of the U.S. Commission on 
International Religious Freedom. However, as I will outline below, I am 
concerned that USCIRF has gone astray in recent years. Therefore, I 
offered an amendment to H.R. 2867, the USCIRF Reauthorization Act, 
including good-government reforms like term limits for Commissioners, a 
prohibition on employee discrimination, and a requirement that 
Commissioners follow Federal travel regulations. My amendment also 
included changes to H.R. 2867 that will make USCIRF stronger, extending 
its reauthorization from 2 to 3 years and increasing the number of 
Commissioners from five to nine. The Durbin amendment will allow the 
USCIRF to more effectively pursue its mission.
  On Monday, the Senate adopted my amendment and passed the USCIRF 
reauthorization bill on a unanimous vote. The bill is now awaiting 
consideration in the House of Representatives. USCIRF's current 
authorization is scheduled to expire tomorrow, December 16, so I urge 
my colleagues in the House to quickly take up and pass H.R. 2867.
  I would like to take a moment to outline the provisions of the 
amendment that I offered to H.R. 2867.
  Although the plain language of USCIRF's authorizing statute limits 
Commissioners to two, 2-year terms, for a total of 4 years of service, 
this term limit has never been observed. In fact, several Commissioners 
have served more than 10 years. The members of many governmental boards 
and commissions are term limited, and USCIRF would be well served by 
the new ideas and fresh perspective that new Commissioners would bring.
  The House-passed version of H.R. 2867 includes a provision that 
limits Commissioners to serving two consecutive terms. However, the 
bill creates two new exceptions to the term limit provision in USCIRF's 
existing authorization. First, the bill would allow a Commissioner to 
serve an unlimited number of nonconsecutive terms. Second, the bill 
would allow each current Commissioner to complete his or her current 
term and then serve one additional term, regardless of how long the 
Commissioner has served. As a result, Commissioners who have already 
served more than 10 years would be permitted to serve an additional 
full term and unlimited nonconsecutive terms.
  These loopholes are a step backwards from existing law and undercut 
the purpose of a term limit, which is to make sure that new voices from 
a range of viewpoints and faiths are rotated into the Commission 
periodically to collaborate in strengthening and shaping the 
Commission's mandate. In keeping with this spirit, my amendment 
includes in H.R. 2867 a firm term limit of two, 2-year terms--4 years 
total--with no grandfathering of current Commissioners.
  USCIRF has taken the position that its employees do not enjoy the 
same antidiscrimination protections as all

[[Page S8674]]

other Federal employees. It is simply unacceptable for a Federal agency 
charged with promoting human rights to argue that it has the legal 
right to discriminate against its employees. The Durbin amendment 
includes in H.R. 2867 a provision which allows pending civil rights 
claims against USCIRF to proceed under the Congressional Accountability 
Act.
  The House-passed version of H.R. 2867 provided antidiscrimination 
protections to USCIRF employees for future incidents of discrimination 
through the Congressional Accountability Act. However, I was concerned 
that this provision did not apply to former employees or past 
discrimination. As a result, there would have been no legal remedy for 
any incidents of discrimination that may have taken place prior to 
enactment of H.R. 2867.
  Specifically, last year a former USCIRF employee filed a 
discrimination claim based on her allegation that her permanent 
employment offer was rescinded after the Commissioners learned of her 
prior job with a Muslim civil rights organization. Though she 
subsequently received a temporary contract with USCIRF, she claims she 
was terminated when she filed her discrimination claim. The Commission 
argued that it is not subject to title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 
1964. The case is now on appeal.
  There must be some avenue for resolving--on the merits--past 
allegations that USCIRF discriminated against its employees. 
Accordingly, my amendment to H.R. 2867 provides that pending civil 
rights claims against USCIRF may proceed under the Congressional 
Accountability Act.
  The House-passed version of H.R. 2867 reduced the number of 
Commissioners from nine to five, which would make it more difficult for 
USCIRF to carry out its mission. Moreover, the bill accomplished this 
reduction in a disproportionate fashion by reducing the number of 
Commissioners appointed by the President from three to one. The Durbin 
amendment strikes the provision from H.R. 2867 which reduces the number 
of Commissioners from nine to five.
  Religious freedom advocates allege that some USCIRF Commissioners 
have traveled first class and stayed in five-star hotels, in violation 
of Federal travel regulations. This is deeply troubling, particularly 
during a time when all Federal agencies are being asked to do more with 
less. The Durbin amendment simply clarifies that USCIRF Commissioners 
are subject to Federal travel regulations, like other Federal 
employees.
  H.R. 2867 reauthorizes USCIRF until September 30, 2013. With the 
good-government reforms in the Durbin amendment, it would be more 
appropriate to reauthorize USCIRF until September 30, 2014, so that 
USCIRF Commissioners and staff have more certainty about the future of 
the Commission.
  I strongly support the mission of the U.S. Commission on 
International Religious Freedom, but I have been deeply troubled by 
allegations of misconduct, misuse of funds, and discrimination at the 
Commission. For example, according to the Washington Post:

       Some past commissioners, staff and former staff of the U.S. 
     Commission on International Religious Freedom say the agency 
     charged with advising the president and Congress is rife, 
     behind-the-scenes, with ideology and tribalism, with 
     commissioners focusing on pet projects that are often based 
     on their own religious background. In particular, they say an 
     anti-Muslim bias runs through the commission's work. . . . 
     Rumors about infighting and ineffectiveness have swirled for 
     years around the commission.

  My amendment will make good-government reforms to USCIRF that should 
help to address the concerns that have been raised about USCIRF. 
Moreover, my amendment will make USCIRF stronger by increasing the 
number of Commissioners in the reauthorization bill from five to nine 
and by extending the reauthorization from 2 to 3 years. As chairman of 
the Judiciary Committee's Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights 
Subcommittee and a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the 
Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, I will 
closely monitor the work of the USCIRF in the coming months and years 
to ensure that it is functioning in a transparent fashion and 
effectively performing its mission of promoting and protecting 
international religious freedom.
  I urge my colleagues in the House of Representatives to quickly take 
up and pass H.R. 2867 so that the U.S. Commission on International 
Religious Freedom can be reauthorized.

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