Cluttered Omnibus Appropriations Bill Finally Passes
Finally, on Oct. 21, 12 days after it was scheduled to adjourn, the 105th Congress closed up shop and headed home to the important business of campaigning for reelection. The final agenda item was to pass a huge, "omnibus" appropriations bill that combined the eight appropriations bills that Congress had not been able to pass previously, usually because one special interest group or another had managed to tack on one or more controversial provisions.
The bill as finally passed was called a "compromise" because both sides gave highly publicized concessions in some key areas, but it was also called a "Christmas tree," because it was loaded with extraneous trinkets in an effort to get as many yes votes as possible. To pay for at least some of those trinkets, President Bill Clinton and the Congress collaborated to remove $2.4 billion from the District of Columbia pension trust fund, presumably on the grounds that DC residents don't get a vote in Congress anyway. Many of the extras were classic pork-barrel provisions designed to fund pet projects, but others were provisions designed to appeal to a key constituency. And one of those key constituencies was the Israel lobby.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS PROVISIONS
The foreign affairs provision that has received the most headlines is the agreement to contribute almost $18 billion toward an international replenishment of funds for IMF lending programs, provided that the IMF agrees to certain reforms. The Senate had already approved the full $18 billion, but the House had only agreed to provide $3.4 billion.
Another highly publicized item that, in fact, did not happen was the apparent agreement to fund approximately half of the back dues that the U.S. owes to the U.N. This didn't happen because it was made contingent upon the president agreeing to sign a pet project of Senate Foreign Relations committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), the Foreign Affairs Reform Act (FARA), which Congress had passed in March and April. It had not yet been sent to Clinton for fear that he would veto it because of another provision restricting funding for family planning groups that assist women in obtaining abortions. As soon as the omnibus bill was passed, the FARA was sent to Clinton, and he promptly vetoed it. Unfortunately for the Israel lobby, that meant he also vetoed the provisions concerning Jerusalem that had been slipped into the bill, as well as other Middle East provisions that would not have advanced U.S. interests in the region. (See the May/June issue of the Washington Report for a more complete description of other Middle East-related items in the Foreign Affairs Reform Act.)
However, Senator Helms succeeded in getting his foreign affairs reform enacted anyway, because he managed to slip the reform portion into the back end of the omnibus bill. This means that the parts of the original FARA that abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the U.S. Information Agency, folding their functions into the Department of State, were enacted. The Agency for International Development remains nominally independent, but its administrator will now report to the secretary of state. One Middle East-related provision from the original FARA that was retained was the section concerning claims by U.S. firms against the government of Saudi Arabia. This section requires the secretary of state to periodically report to the Congress on the specific actions taken by the State, Defense, and Commerce departments toward resolving any commercial disputes between U.S. firms and the government of Saudi Arabia.
A potentially troublesome item that made its way into the omnibus bill was the establishment of a National Commission on Terrorism. This initially was an independent bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (RVA), who was an original sponsor of the anti-religious discrimination bill (see separate article, p. 45). The Terrorism Commission was folded into the House version of the foreign aid bill, and a modified version made it into the omnibus bill. As passed, the provision establishes a 10-member commission, with three members appointed by the Senate majority leader, another three members appointed by the speaker of the House, and two members each appointed each by the Senate minority leader and the House minority leader. The commission's stated purpose is "to review counter-terrorism policies regarding the prevention and punishment of international acts of terrorism directed at the United States." On its face, this provision does not seem objectionable. Much will depend, however, on whether or not the appointed members of the commission carry with them pre-conceived anti-Arab or anti Muslim biases, which would prevent them from dealing equally with all kinds of terrorism, regardless of where or with whom it originates.
Finally, in terms of major items, the omnibus bill restores most of the $1.1 billion that Congress previously had cut from the administration's foreign aid request. However, this will have little effect on the Middle East, since most of the specific earmarks for Middle East countries did not change.
MAJOR MIDDLE EAST PROVISIONS
The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act was effectively renewed in the same way as was done last year. Briefly, U.S. officials may meet with Palestinian officials and the Palestinian Authority (PA) may maintain diplomatic offices in the U.S., and economic aid may be provided to the PA, provided that the president issues a waiver certifying that such actions are in the national security interests of the U.S. The waiver is to be valid for six months, renewable for another six months.
The same standard clause regarding the Arab League boycott of Israel as was in last year's appropriations bill was also included in the omnibus bill. It gives the "sense of Congress" (meaning that it's non-binding) that the president should take more concrete steps to encourage Arab League countries to renounce the boycott; take a country's participation in the boycott into consideration when determining whether to sell arms to the country; encourage U.S. allies and trading partners to enact laws prohibiting compliance with the boycott; and report to Congress the steps taken to bring about a public renunciation of the boycott and expand the normalization of ties between Arab League countries and Israel.
The $5.4 billion limit on aid to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, and various Middle East monitoring and working groups that was first inserted in last year's aid appropriations bill was retained in the omnibus bill. However, since aid to Israel and Egypt was reduced by $110 million (see below) this should leave more available for allocation to other Middle Eastern countries. The provision also contains a waiver provision allowing the cap to be broken if the president determines it is "important to the national security interest of the U.S. to do so."
PROVISIONS AFFECTING SPECIFIC COUNTRIES
Aid earmarked for Israel was as described in the previous issue of the Washington Report: $1.08 billion for economic aid, $1.86 billion for military aid, and $70 million in "refugee resettlement assistance for a total of $3,010,000,000." This represents a reduction in economic aid of $120 million, an increase in military aid of $60 million, and a decrease in refugee resettlement assistance of $10 million, for a net decrease of $70 million. In addition, the amount of military aid that Israel is allowed to spend in Israel rather than in the United States is increased to $490 million.
Another provision affecting Israel that was slipped into the bill is one denying funds to the International Atomic Energy Agency unless the secretary of state determines that Israel is not being denied "its right" to participate in the agency.
Another provision affecting Israel is what some people have called "the Flatow bill." Alisa Flatow, a New Jersey resident who was a student in Israel, was killed in the bombing of a bus bound for a Jewish settlement in Gaza. Her family sued Iran (claiming that Iran was the backer of Islamic Jihad, which was believed responsible for the bomb) under the 1996 anti-terrorism bill and won a judgment of $247.5 million. However, when the family attempted to attach Iranian diplomatic and other assets in the U.S., the Departments of State and Justice intervened to block them. In response, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill making it illegal for any U.S. department or agency to intervene to block such a judgment, regardless of such niceties as diplomatic immunity. Lautenberg's bill did not pass, but he did get it slipped into the omnibus bill. However, the provision in the omnibus bill does allow for a presidential waiver, and Clinton exercised that authority the same day that he signed the omnibus bill, thus infuriating the Flatow family.
Aid earmarked for Egypt was also the same as described in the previous issue of the Washington Report: $775 million in economic aid, a reduction of $40 million, and $1.3 billion of military aid for a total of $2,075,000,000. In addition, a provision aimed at Egypt that was first inserted in last year's aid appropriations bill was retained in the omnibus bill. This provision would withhold 5 percent of all non-humanitarian assistance to any country certified by the president to be violating U.N. sanctions against Libya. However, this provision does allow for a presidential waiver "in the national security interest of the U.S."
Aid earmarked for Jordan is slightly different than described in the previous issue. Economic aid is the same, $150 million. However, military aid is earmarked at $45 million (down from $75 million last year), plus $25 million worth of training and drawdown of Defense Department stocks.
The only other earmark is for Tunisia, and it is lower than described in the previous issue: $7 million in military assistance, including $5 million worth of training and drawdown of Defense Department stocks.
Although the bill contains no specific earmark for Lebanon, Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-MI) was moderately successful in gaining support for the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University (formerly named Beirut University College and, before that, Beirut Women's College). The report language accompanying the omnibus bill recommends "at least $15 million" for the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program, tions in Lebanon.
Most of the provisions that were described in the previous issue of the Washington Report were, indeed, in the omnibus bill. These were that the U.S. should urge the U.N. General Assembly to impose a multilateral oil embargo on Libya if Libya does not turn over the two accused Pan Am 103 bombers to the Netherlands for trial by Oct. 29, 1998; the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) should maintain vigorous inspections within Iraq and the U.S. government should oppose any efforts to ease those inspections; there should be no easing of U.S. policy toward Iran until there is "credible and sustained evidence" of change in Iran's policies; no funds are to be used to provide any kind of assistance to the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation; and $8 million (as opposed to the $10 million previously reported) is earmarked for the "Iraqi democratic opposition." Of the $8 million, no less than $3 million should go to the Iraqi National Congress. (This apparently comes on top of the $97 million provided to the Iraqi opposition under the recently passed "Iraq Liberation Act" -- see "Congress Watch," page 21.)
In addition the omnibus bill contains the standard provisions prohibiting any direct or indirect assistance to Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, or Syria.
The omnibus bill includes a subsidy from the U.S. taxpayer of $32.1 million, including $1.575 million for repairs, for the Holocaust Museum. This compares with $32.2 million, including $20 million for repair and rehabilitation of the aging structure, for the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
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