A Tough Act to Follow

Tue Apr. 28, 1998 3:00 AM EDT

Why do corporations pay $500-an-hour-and-up fees to Beltway lobbyists? Because lobbyists know how to win their goals by penning just the right phrase and inserting it at the perfect spot in a piece of legislation.

Consider the following memo-in-progress, complete with handwritten notations, which was produced by The Wexler Group. It contains a list of seven proposed amendments to the Wolf-Specter bill, known as the Religious Persecution Act, which is opposed by the nation's biggest exporters because it would slap trade restrictions on and restrict federal aid to countries with records of religious oppression.

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This memo looks like a wish list of USA*Engage and other Wolf-Specter opponents. Since this memo was drafted last fall, several of these proposals have been inserted into the legislation. The bill is expected to come to a vote before the end of May, and while some of these proposed changes may seem trifling, all involve issues of great consequence and have the effect of undermining the bill's impact.


1) Adding a Middleman
The original Wolf-Specter bill, introduced last May, would have created a White House office to monitor religious persecution. The current version of Wolf-Specter places the office at the State Department. The result is to downgrade the office's status and decrease its director's access to the president.


2) Pulling a Punch
Foes of Wolf-Specter also chalked up victory on this second amendment, which removed a preamble from the original bill that declared a number of countries—including China and Vietnam—to be guilty of widespread persecution, and called for an investigation into their respective records. Removing the preamble means those nations, which have American business partners among the USA*Engage coalition, are no longer an immediate focus of the office of religious persecution.


3) Choking on Red Tape
Broadening the definition of persecution might first seem to actually make the bill tougher on human rights abusers. But this cynical proposal would serve to include religious "discrimination" as an abuse that calls for official investigation. This, insiders suggest, would bog down the office in a morass of complaints, from the treatment of atheists in Israel to the attitude toward Scientologists in Germany—as opposed to the torture and murder of religious minorities in some countries targeted by Wolf-Specter. This provision has taken form in one proposed addition to Wolf-Specter by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), which has since been dropped. But this is also the focus of an alternate bill being pushed by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.).


4) The Boeing Amendment
This innocuous-sounding provision is code for exempting any funding from the Export-Import Bank from Wolf-Specter sanctions. This would make the bill toothless in regard to China—where Boeing sold 1 out of every 10 of its airplanes from 1992 to 1994. In its present form, Wolf-Specter targets only "non-humanitarian" U.S. aid. The only such aid that China receives is from the Export-Import Bank, which underwrites sales by U.S. firms to Beijing. (The Ex-Im has underwritten so many of Boeing's deals with China that some call it the Bank of Boeing.)


5) Presidential Pardon
This provision allows the president to waive trade sanctions if he determines that imposing them will have the perverse effect of heightening religious persecution (for example, if the sanctions would cause retaliation against some religious minority). This loophole, which some worry could be abused by Clinton, was added when the bill was rewritten in December.


6) The Caterpillar/PepsiCo Clause
Foes of Wolf-Specter already won one provision that gives businesses that trade with Sudan—a country where a fundamentalist Islamic government has conducted a brutal war against Christians that has left hundreds of thousands dead—a big break. The provision makes imports from Sudan of gum arabic—about the only thing the U.S. wants to buy from Sudan and a key ingredient in soft drinks, baked goods, and pharmaceuticals—exempt from Wolf-Specter sanctions. That's a big break for USA*Engage members such as Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo. There are others who would still like the Sudan section taken out entirely, including construction giant Caterpillar, which has major operations in that country (Caterpillar's D.C. director, William Lane, is USA*Engage's chairman).


7) INS and Outs
As the vote on Wolf-Specter is nearing, the bill's critics are still fighting to attach this amendment. If it succeeds, Immigration and Naturalization Service officers will continue to have the right to deny entry to the United States to people they believe are under no real threat of religious persecution. Wolf-Specter would restrict their ability to do so and make it easier for people seeking asylum to get a formal hearing to determine if their stated fear is well founded.

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