Congressional Update – Week Ending March 30, 2018

I. Congress

Lawmakers in both chambers had the week off and the recess will extend through next week as well. The Senate is scheduled to hold legislative business on April 9 while the House gets back to business the following day.

Below, following the weekly update, there is a breakdown of some of the most relevant provisions of the fiscal year 2018 budget that was passed on March 23.

House Minority Leader Pelosi Leads Delegation to Jordan, Israel. While many representatives were in their home districts for the break, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) led a 10-member, all-Democratic delegation to the Middle East to visit Jordan, Israel, and Jerusalem. In Israel, the delegation met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as members of the Knesset, to discuss bilateral relations and issues of national security. They also attended a briefing by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. The focus on national security carried on to their other meetings in Jerusalem, which included a sit-down with Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman. Only after this meeting did the delegation make time to speak with other stakeholders, such as groups of Palestinian youth to discuss what efforts they were making to “break down barriers to peace,” as Pelosi’s press-release noted.

In Jordan, the 11 Democrats met with King Abdullah II and other senior officials of the Jordanian government. The sides discussed topics of mutual concern like regional security and the struggling Jordanian economy. Before leaving, the delegation toured a US Agency for International Development-built school called Dahiet Al Ameer. A number of Syrian children attend the school and Pelosi highlighted efforts like this as an example of Jordanian initiatives to provide aid and relief to just some of the nearly 660,000 registered Syrian refugees residing in Jordan.

House Democrats Pen Letter to FBI Director about Kushner-Bin Salman Ties. On March 29, six Democratic representatives reportedly sent a letter to Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), urging him to open a probe into the relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and top White House Advisor Jared Kushner, and to ascertain whether classified information was improperly disclosed between the two.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Taps John Rakolta as Ambassador to UAE. On March 28, it was reported that President Donald Trump is tapping a diplomatic neophyte to serve as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. John Rakolta is a business executive and Trump campaign fundraiser from Michigan who has no international diplomacy experience. Once senators return for business, the president will have to formally nominate Rokolta and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for him to testify.

2) State Department

Ambassador Tina Kaidanow Visits Turkey, Iraq on Trip to the Middle East. This week Ambassador Tina Kaidanow—who serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs—traveled to Turkey and Iraq to meet with senior officials of each government and talk about bilateral and regional security concerns. In addition, Kaidanow met with officials in Baghdad to discuss US security assistance that she, as the leading official of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, has a role in approving.

III. Judicial Branch

Thomas E. Burnett, Sr., et al. v. Al Baraka Investment and Development Corp., et al. On March 28, a judge in the US District Court’s Southern District of New York ruled in favor of a group of plaintiffs who are suing Saudi banks and businesses, Saudi individuals, and now the Saudi government, for damages stemming from the September 11, 2001 attacks. This specific ruling stems from a motion filed in 2017 to amend the original suit—originally brought against 99 entities including members of the Saudi royal family, the National Commercial and Al Rajhi Banks, and the Saudi Binladin Group, which is owned and operated by the family of Osama bin Ladin—and add the Saudi government as a defendant. Since the lawsuit’s initiation in 2002, the Saudi government has argued that it had “foreign sovereign immunity” and could not be held responsible for any of the claims made against Saudi entities. This argument held strong until Congress passed the Justice Against State Sponsors of Terrorism Act in 2016. This law, known as JASTA, carved out exceptions to the sovereign immunity rule the Saudis utilized and the judge’s decision to allow the motion to include the Saudi government as a defendant opens the kingdom up to potential legal exposure for damages.

While the plaintiffs’ lawyers marked the decision as a win, the judge did strike down a few of their claims in the process. He ruled that the claims against the National Commercial Bank, Al Rajhi Bank, and the Saudi Binladin Group could not be considered, citing lack of jurisdiction. Additionally, the judge ruled that the claims against the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina were also illegitimate, agreeing with the commission’s lawyers’ argument that the claims do not overcome the presumption of immunity that comes in a “guilt-by-association” claim like the one levied by the plaintiffs’ counsel. With those caveats, the judge has determined that the parameters of the lawsuit will cover claims surrounding the Saudi government’s support for some of the September 11 hijackers through Fahad al Thumairy, an imam at a Saudi-funded mosque in California, and Omar al Bayoumi, who is believed to be part of Saudi intelligence. Moving forward, the plaintiffs could have an opportunity to conduct discovery to obtain additional information from the Saudis about the events leading up to the attack.

Fiscal Year 2018 Budget

The more than 2,200-page omnibus bill that Congress passed to fund the federal government for the rest of this fiscal year was full of interesting details. Here are some of the most relevant figures, along with some noteworthy provisions hidden in the text.

Division C – Department of Defense

Base-level funding for Defense: $589,500,000,000

  • Includes the following provisions:
    • $631,670,000 to provide support and assistance to foreign security forces or other groups for counterterrorism and other security purposes
    • $705,800,000 for Israeli Cooperative Programs that allow Israel to procure missile defense systems like the Iron Dome and Arrow 3
    • Prohibitions on using funds to close down the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Overseas Contingency Operations-Global War on Terror: $65,200,000,000

  • Includes the following provisions:
    • $7,575,195,000 to be used to reimburse coalition partners aiding in the fight against the so-called Islamic State; bolster Jordan’s ability to protect its borders; and more
    • $1,769,000,000 for the Counter-IS Train and Equip fund that allows the Secretary of Defense to provide security assistance, training, equipment, and more to countries participating in the fight against IS; namely, these funds will help Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia since they border unstable countries that have IS presence
    • $500,000,000 to provide assistance to Jordan’s armed forces

Division K – Department of State

Base-level funding for State-Foreign Operations, and Related Programs: $42,158,900,000

  • Includes funds for:
    • Contributions to International Organizations (like the United Nations): $1,371,168,000
    • Contributions for International Peacekeeping: $414,624,000
    • US Broadcasting Board of Governors (includes Middle East broadcasting programs): $807,686,000
    • USAID: $1,189,609,000
    • Bilateral Economic Assistance (includes Economic Support Funds [ESF]): $19,545,401,000
    • International Security Assistance (includes Foreign Military Financing [FMF]; International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement [INCLE]; Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs [NATDRP]; and International Military Education and Training [IMET]): $7,601,512,000
  • Notable examples (based on the omnibus and supporting Congressional documents):
    • Israel:
      • $3,100,000,000 in FMF funds
      • $7,500,000 for refugees resettling in Israel
    • Palestine:
      • Prohibitions on funds to any potential Palestinian state unless its leaders “commit to peaceful co-existence” and cooperate on security and counterterrorism with the state of Israel; prohibition on using funds for the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, to pay salaries of government officials with ties to Hamas or the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or to fund any power-sharing government between Fatah and Hamas; prohibition on allocating funds to the Palestinian Authority if it seeks official status in any UN body or initiates—or even supports—International Criminal Court Investigations of Israel
    • Egypt:
      • $1,419,300,000 in ESF, INCLE, NATDRP, IMET, and FMF
    • Jordan:
      • $1,525,000,000 in ESF, NATDRP, IMET, and FMF
    • Morocco:
      • $38,500,000 in ESF, INCLE, NATDRP, IMET, and FMF
    • Tunisia:
      • A minimum of $165,400,000 is earmarked for Tunisia and can come in the form of ESF, INCLE, NATDRP, IMET, and FMF
    • Lebanon, Iraq, Syria:
      • Lebanon and Iraq are authorized to receive funds, including from ESF and FMF, but lawmakers did not stipulate an amount, so the president and secretary of state have flexibility in providing support for these states; as for Syria, it is similarly afforded funding, but with prohibitions on funds being used to directly benefit the Assad government
    • United Nations:
      • 15 percent of total US funding to the body is contingent on the secretary of state certifying that the organization is making progress in protecting whistleblowers and conducting audits on the use of funds
      • Funds are barred from going to the UN Human Rights Council unless the secretary of state and US ambassador to the UN certify that Israel is removed as a “permanent agenda item”
      • 5 percent of US funds must be withheld if the secretary and the ambassador decide that the United Nations or any of its agencies have taken official actions that go against the national security interests of the United States and its allies, namely Israel (i.e., that such entities vote against them)

Overseas Contingency Operations-Global War on Terror: $12,018,000,000

  • These funds are off-the-books, additional funds dedicated for purposes similar to those listed above and are only available for contingencies:
    • International Organizations: $96,240,000
    • International Peacekeeping: $967,456,000
    • USAID: $158,067,000
    • Bilateral Economic Assistance (includes ESF): $6,254,141,000
    • International Security Assistance (includes FMF): $1,523,747,000

Division S – Title X

Taylor Force Act. Congress inserted the previously debated Taylor Force Act into the omnibus bill, albeit in watered-down form. This portion of the bill looks to punish Palestinians for providing financial assistance, education and job training, and other welfare benefits to those jailed or killed by Israelis, including those convicted or accused of carrying out so-called terrorist attacks. Because critics of the practice view it as rewarding and incentivizing “violent acts” against Israelis, Congress has long withheld a portion of funding to Palestinians equivalent to what the secretary of state determines was spent on financial assistance to the Palestinians jailed or killed after “fairly” being found to have committed acts of terror. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, believes the Taylor Force Act is politically motivated and will drastically reduce the critical humanitarian aid to Palestinians who need it. While previous versions of the bill sought to completely cut off funding, the final version carved out exceptions for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, $5,000,000 in wastewater projects to the Occupied Territories, and $500,000 for youth vaccination programs. Interestingly, the language stipulates that, upon notifying Congress of his determination regarding funding, the secretary of state actually determines the definition of terrorism used to make his decision. Perhaps this could give the secretary some flexibility in allowing funds to flow to Palestinians—or it could allow him to use a broad definition and restrict funds further.