Congressional Update – Week Ending July 13, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

US-Israel Security Assistance Authorization. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee—despite the best efforts of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to block the legislation—agreed to pass S. 2497, which guarantees Israel, at minimum, $3.3 billion of security aid per year through fiscal year 2028. This total was agreed upon under the Obama Administration and it represents at least a $300 million increase in security assistance every year. Paul and other critics of such legislation note that Israel has a strong economy and a very capable defense industry. They question why the United States continues to allocate such exorbitant amounts of money to Israel, some of which does not even have to be spent in the United States. Ultimately, however, the bill is likely to become law. The full Senate will take up the bill in the near future.

Continue American Safety Act. Over the past several months, the United States has withdrawn or otherwise limited the temporary protected status (TPS) of a number of vulnerable immigrant communities, potentially forcing them back to their conflict-stricken homes and uncertain futures. In response, seven House Democrats introduced a bill this week that would amend the TPS system and extend the designations for vulnerable groups like those from Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, and Syria, which the Trump Administration previously withdrew or threatened to. H.R. 6325 was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary for consideration.

2) Hearings

Bahrain: 2018 Elections. The bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing on July 10 to assess the state of political expression and participation in Bahrain ahead of the country’s fall 2018 parliamentary elections. Though Manama is ruled by its Sunni royal family, it has an elected—but not coequal—legislative body that was established to placate Bahrain’s majority Shia population and allow it to elect its own representatives. The elections are slated for late October or early November, but there are a number of roadblocks to truly free and fair elections. To discuss these issues, the commission hosted the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman to moderate a discussion among three human rights analysts: Michael Payne of the Americans for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain; Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute, and Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy.

The panelists offered almost identical assessments of the human rights environment in Bahrain, especially regarding political expression: it is poor and continues to deteriorate. Payne, Campbell, and Binder all highlighted how authorities in Manama are consciously cutting off access to the political arena and pushing otherwise legitimate political groups underground while characterizing such actions as necessary to combat terrorism. Additionally, they agreed that the acceleration of this crackdown on political activists and dissidents, in no small part, has been fueled by the Trump Administration’s willingness to ignore human rights abuses and focus on security concerns—as illustrated by this week’s designation of the Bahraini al-Ashtar Brigades as a terrorist group. The panelists offered specific recommendations for Congress to act on issues the White House has thus far refused to address as well as to try to seek change from the Bahraini ruling family which would allow for truly representative, free, and fair elections this fall.

Most immediately, the panelists argued that members of Congress can pressure the government to release all political prisoners and reinstate political parties. Doing so means conditioning weapons sales on such democratic reforms. Further, they said that lawmakers should request that the Trump Administration publicly delineate criteria for free and fair election standards and even pressure the Treasury and State Departments to sanction Bahrain under Global Magnitsky Act provisions, targeting Bahraini officials implicated in mass human rights abuses.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Threat. On July 11, the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security convened a hearing to assess if the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) constitute a global threat to US interests, and whether its behavior warrants a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation. The more conservative witnesses and members of the subcommittee believe unequivocally that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. However, other witnesses and subcommittee members took a more nuanced view of the issue, acknowledging that some MB elements have and continue to utilize violence in their quest for political power, but noting that many have renounced violence and have since been seamlessly integrated into political processes in their countries. To discuss these issues, the subcommittee hosted Hillel Fradkin of the Hudson Institute, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, M. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and Daniel Benjamin of Dartmouth University.

Fradkin and Jasser took hardline views of the issue, agreeing that the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole is an FTO. To combat terrorist threats, Jasser suggested implementing strict financial sanctions on any of the groups under the MB umbrella. While agreeing that the group is an FTO, Schanzer noted that under US law, it would be very difficult to implement the broad sanctions that Jasser proposed. Instead, he argued that lawmakers should encourage the Treasury Department to use existing tools to pressure designated MB groups, like Hamas, even further. Benjamin dissented and explained that the MB is not a monolith and that the group varies greatly across countries and political environments. Indeed, he noted that a blanket designation would disrupt security cooperation with countries like Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Kuwait, where MB offshoots play integral roles in those governments.

The panelists who did not favor a blanket FTO designation suggested adding MB elements to the sanctions list (e.g., Yemen’s Islah Party and Libya’s Hizb al-Watan group). Further, witnesses recommended that the United States put pressure on Qatar and Turkey for their support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar was particularly singled out because it has allowed MB members to reside in Doha and because of its reluctance to interfere in Al Jazeera’s reporting, which US lawmakers have long criticized as a tool for incitement.

3) Correspondence

Steve Chabot Raises Awareness about Assad Confiscating Private Property. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter this week to inform other House members of the ill effects of Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to undermine property rights in Syria. Assad ushered through a law (“Law 10”) in April legalizing state confiscation of private property if the landowners did not lay claim to the property in 30 days, which Chabot writes “would often require returning to a war zone or facing regime oppression.” Rights groups argue that this law will only make it harder in the long term for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons to return home. Chabot further notes that, “Although the regime has extended this timeframe from 30 days to a year, Law 10 will still prevent refugees and displaced individuals from ever returning home. Worse, the regime will use the law to remake Syria, rewarding Iranians and other pro-regime individuals by resettling them on confiscated property.”

Bipartisan Group Seeks Support to “Limit Giveaways to Wealthy Gulf Nations.” A bipartisan group of representatives, spearheaded by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-California) and Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), are seeking more support for their bill known as the REPAY Act (H.R. 6296). According to their “Dear Colleague” letter, a Government Accountability Office report “found that the Defense Department gave away $8.5 billion in foreign military sales waivers to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait from FY2012-17.” Despite the Gulf states’ history of largesse, such military sales waivers are exercised when a country claims that it would not purchase an arms package if the attached, nonrecurring fees that are set forth by US law could not be waived. The sponsors of the REPAY Act understand the positive aspects of allowing the Department of Defense to waive such fees, but their bill seeks to address the department’s liberal approval of those waivers—adding that, “there’s no reason taxpayers should be footing an $8.5 billion bill for some of the wealthiest countries in the world.”

House Democrats Write to Saudi-Led Coalition Expressing Concerns about Yemen War. Five of the House Democrats’ leading voices wrote to the ambassadors of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia this week to caution the coalition against its hardline positions vis-à-vis the Houthi rebels in Yemen. They asked the Saudis and Emiratis to “reconsider the assault” of Hodeidah, the most important port for crucial goods and humanitarian supplies entering Yemen. In addition, the US lawmakers urged the Saudis and Emiratis to forego unrealistic demands, like the complete and unconditional surrender and withdrawal of the Houthi rebels—reasoning that it is unlikely this would happen, and demanding so would only prolong the fighting.

House Democrats Also Write to Trump Seeking Transparency Regarding Palestine Aid. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) followed up the aforementioned letter with one directed to President Trump, this time regarding aid to the Palestinians, which has been on hold since January 2018. Deutch and eight colleagues wrote to the Trump Administration questioning the status of its review of Palestinian aid. At the same time that the administration withholds funding, humanitarian conditions in the occupied territories continue to worsen, with Gaza inching nearer to a full-blown crisis. The Democrats acknowledged the administration’s concerns about US funds being used for nefarious purposes by the Palestinian Authority, but they argued that withholding aid any longer will prove disastrous for the millions of Palestinians suffering at present.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump’s Jerusalem Embassy Bill Released. President Trump famously told the American people that moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was not only pertinent diplomacy, but that it made sense fiscally, as he could negotiate the cost of erecting a permanent embassy for $250,000. Now that the government has released early figures of the temporary diplomatic compound, however, the real figure is higher—roughly 100 times higher. Despite claims otherwise, the new embassy will not be built cheaply and, aside from its costs, there is no clear timetable for when construction will begin.

2) State Department

Pompeo Conducts Media Blitz During Trip to UAE. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Abu Dhabi this week for meetings with Emirati officials. In Abu Dhabi, he took a hard line against Iran and its regional ambitions. Indeed, he told the Emirates’ The National that Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force must suffer greater costs for their malign activities in the region. In a separate interview with Sky News Arabia, Pompeo reiterated talk of Iran’s threatening behavior in the region and stated that Iran uses its embassies around the globe to plan terrorist attacks. Despite all of his rhetoric, Pompeo did seem to offer some backtracking on certain issues. He was reluctant to demand that Syria’s Assad step down, and he even left the door open for Washington to offer some waivers to countries that agree to cutting Iranian oil imports but demonstrate a need to continue buying oil. Pompeo’s infatuation with vilifying Tehran has been on display over the past couple of weeks; interestingly, however, he announced that he will be giving a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on July 22 that will focus on “Supporting Iranian Voices.”

In addition to his stop in the UAE, Pompeo was in Brussels for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, and co-hosted a meeting of ministers of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State.

Pompeo was not the only member of the US government meeting with Arab officials this week. State and Treasury Department officials made trips in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, to discuss strategies to counter Iran and cut off Tehran’s access to financial services.