The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
A commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is resigning in protest over what she says are attempts to muzzle the panel.
Commissioner Kristina Arriaga cited a legislative attempt to “undermine the independence of the commissioners” to the point “where I can no longer be an effective advocate for religious freedom,” she told me.
While USCIRF commissioners have at times disagreed on various religious freedom issues, a commissioner resigning over being unable to perform her role effectively is unprecedented.
Arriaga said the proposals will “get rid of the qualities that give USCIRF its independence and Special Forces-like nimbleness.”
USCIRF faces congressional reauthorization and, barring consensus, will shut down on Nov. 21. While Capitol Hill staffers negotiate, some believe this year’s legislative proposal curtails the independence that allows USCIRF to be an effective watchdog.
In more than a dozen interviews with former and current USCIRF commissioners, congressional staffers, and religious freedom organization employees, many advocates told me they view some proposals as attempts to micromanage the commission.
Congress created USCIRF in 1998 to monitor religious freedom and persecution worldwide and offer policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress. Members of both parties of Congress and the president nominate commissioners. While the body has no authority to enforce sanctions, its narrow focus has allowed it to speak unencumbered by economic or national security considerations—factors the State Department has to weigh when compiling its annual religious freedom report.
Lawmakers clashed over the structure, purpose, and future of the commission in the reauthorization processes in 2011 and 2015. This year, congressional negotiators met early in the process with the office of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to work out a compromise.
On Sept. 18, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., along with Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Chris Coons, D-Del., introduced a stand-alone reauthorization bill providing the commission with $4.5 million for the next four years. In a statement, Durbin said the legislation “includes important reforms to improve the Commission’s accountability and transparency so it can more effectively fulfill its mission.”
But critics say it would do more harm than good. USCIRF Chairman and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said some of the bill’s proposals are “Congress micromanaging this independent agency that they created to be a watchdog for religious freedom. In many ways it’s turning this watchdog into a lapdog.”
One proposal removes staggered terms for commissioners and gives each commissioner only one, non-renewable three-year term. So all commissioners depart at once, leaving inexperienced members coming on.
Other proposals subject the commission to rules that usually apply to federal government employees or congressional commission employees even though commissioners serve as volunteers. The legislation would require them never to be identified or affiliated with USCIRF if publicly speaking as private citizens. If someone identifies them as commissioners, they must report that to the Senate, or to “the appropriate congressional committees” annually.
Another requirement: annual reports to Congress of any foreign travel paid for by someone other than the commissioner, a relative, or the U.S. government.
Another proposal mandates that any commissioner invited to speak in his official capacity must notify all other commissioners and the commission’s executive director. Members could then vote to send a different commissioner. The proposal also requires commissioners to keep records of all official communications.
The senators introduced the bill with a markup scheduled the same week, and Perkins says negotiators never consulted with any commissioners. Rubio pulled the bill after the outcry, and neither his nor Durbin’s offices returned requests for comment.
Congressional negotiators have not yet introduced an update to the original legislation. Funding may continue under a continuing resolution, putting these questions off for the next reauthorization.
Perkins said he doesn’t oppose more accountability, but he thinks the proposed changes are onerous: “I’m talking about micromanaging to the point where operating procedures are in the statutes.”
Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former USCIRF commissioner, said some proposals would bog down the commission, turning it into “another administrative agency” and wasting taxpayer money. “I’m seriously concerned that this bill would push the commission in the wrong direction—making it either useless or even harmful.” He added: “Commissioners have to be independent. They have to be disrupters.”
Faith McDonnell, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, worked on the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 that created the commission. She said the original legislation intended the commission to be independent from Congress.
Extensive reporting requirements “[take] the bones out of the commission.” She added: “These don’t seem to be provisions that make [USCIRF] more effective—they’re provisions that domesticize it and cripple it. Instead of being a lion, it’s a housecat.”
Arriaga said she believes USCIRF “is doing good things but it could be doing great things.”
Arriaga has been a religious freedom advocate for more than 25 years. In 2016, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., appointed her to the commission and re-appointed her in 2018. She served in 2017 and 2018 as vice chairwoman. Her term expires next year.
Meanwhile, restriction of religion is on the rise worldwide, according to Pew Research Institute, with recent examples grabbing headlines: China’s imprisonment of over 1 million Uighur Muslims, ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma (also known as Myanmar), systemic persecution of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, and growing anti-Semitism in Europe.
Isaac Six, director of advocacy for Open Doors USA and the former director of Congressional Affairs & Communications for USCIRF, believes lawmakers will do everything they can to find consensus.
“The commission’s failure would be a victory for really oppressive governments,” Six said. “They would rejoice to see the commission go away.”
The reauthorization process was not controversial until 2011. That’s when Durbin launched an 11th-hour bid to reform the commission, hours before the funding deadline. Most of the reforms failed, but a key provision became law: term limits for commissioners.
In 2014, Durbin proposed more drastic changes, including making the commission partisan. That would have meant giving the body both Democratic and Republican staffs. Many international religious freedom advocates criticized the move.
“There is no Democratic and Republican view of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,” former commissioner Elliott Abrams said at the time.
In 2015, WORLD reported that Durbin’s proposals stemmed from a single legislative aide, Joe Zogby, counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee. USCIRF falls under the Foreign Relations Committee’s jurisdiction, but in order to get Durbin on board, other offices had to work closely with Zogby.
Zogby’s father, James Zogby, served on the commission at the time—despite business dealings in Saudi Arabia that critics said equated to a conflict of interest. The elder Zogby left in 2017, but his son continues to shape legislation around the commission.