U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is apparently heading for a shut down. The federal watchdog, which was created back in 1998 to help the president, Congress and the Department of State better understand religious persecution across the globe, is only days away from a forced closure.
In order to save the government body, Congress will have to intervene before the December 16 deadline. Already, the group has dodged closing two other times this fall, but Religion News Service reports that this is the closest it has ever come to doing so.
Compared to other government institutions, it has a relatively small budget of $4 million each year. Currently, it has nine commissioners and a staff of 17. USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo says that the deadline is so close that he and his fellow staff members will be forced to begin "winding down" and ceasing and desisting of their normal duties in order to prepare. “This is not something we do lightly," he explains.
RNS has more regarding the current funding debacle that could prevent the USCIRF from continuing to function:
A stand-alone bill to reauthorize the commission for an additional two years passed the House nearly three months ago, but a “hold” has been placed on the bill in the Senate, reportedly by Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
According to a report last month in CQ Weekly, Durbin wants the federal government to buy an unused maximum-security prison in Illinois and turn it into a federal facility.
Durbin may be willing to lift his hold, according to the CQ story, in return for the prison purchase. Prison funding is partly controlled by a House subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., a champion of religious freedom who wrote the USCIRF reauthorization bill.
But according to Fox News, Democratic sources are strongly denying the connection between the funding and fiscal support for the prison. They claim that there's legislation already in play that could keep the agency operation, but that they will want some undefined reforms. Fox continues:
Since Durbin's name is connected to the matter, it will get lawmakers' attention, according to Bob Cusack, managing editor of The Hill newspaper. Durbin “is (Majority Leader) Harry Reid's direct deputy. He's the No. 2 Senate Democrat. He's got a lot of power, so when he wants something people have to listen because he controls what happens on the Senate floor.”
If the bill inevitably fails and agreement cannot be made, Congress could continue to fund the body as a portion of an "omnibus" bill. Also, officials could pass a continuing resolution, RNS reports.
So far, no official action has been taken, although the Obama administration has claim it is working on remedying the issue.