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House panel votes to defund the OAS

The House Foreign Affairs Committee began its Wednesday markup of the State Department authorization bill by voting to end funding for the Organization of American States (OAS), with Republicans lambasting the organization as an enemy of freedom and democracy.

The one-hour debate over the GOP proposal to cut the entire $48.5 million annual U.S contribution to the OAS is only the beginning of what looks to be a long and contentious debate over the fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign operations authorization bill written by chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Democrats accused the Republicans of isolationism and retreat for their proposal, while the Republicans accused the OAS of being an ally of anti-U.S. regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. The OAS Charter was signed in 1948 at a conference led by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall.

"Let's not continue to fund an organization that's bent on destroying democracy in Latin America," said Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), the head of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the sponsor of the amendment. "You will support an organization that is destroying the dreams of the people of Latin America."

Other GOP members piled on, accusing the OAS of supporting Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

"The OAS is an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security," said Rep. David Rivera (R-FL). He compared U.S. support of the OAS to a scene from the movie Animal House, where a fraternity pledge is being paddled on his rear end and humiliatingly asks for more punishment.

"How much longer will we say to the OAS ‘Please sir, may I have another," Rivera said.

Panel Democrats had a hard time holding back their astonishment and frustration with the GOP for forcing a vote that they argued would signal America's retreat from multilateral engagement around the world.

"I might offer an amendment to pull out of the world, to build a moat around the United States and put a dome over the thing," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), sarcastically. "This is getting ridiculous."

"Here we are for a lousy $48 million willing to symbolically turn our backs on our own hemisphere... This is folly. it's more than folly, it's dangerous," Ackerman said. "And you've got the votes to do it, that's the frightening thing. But what we should be looking at are opportunities to reach out to the world."

Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) pointed out that the United States has a treaty obligation to pay its dues to the OAS, and argued that the body has made a positive contribution to progress toward democracy since the 1960s.

"The OAS is an enemy? We are really living in two different worlds," Berman said.

Rep. Gregody Meeks (D-NY) and Gerald Connolly (D-VA) also gave impassioned defenses of the OAS. Meeks praised its help in supporting elections in Haiti, while Connelly made the point that no international organization is going to support U.S. policy at every turn.

But by and large, the two parties couldn't even agree on whether Cuba was a member of the organization. In fact, the organization lifted its ban on Cuban membership in 2009 but stated that the present Cuban government could only join if it adheres to the group's democratic principles.

The defunding amendment passed 22-20 along party lines.

Berman criticized the process Ros-Lehtinen is using to move the bill and said that its provisions restricting foreign aid and the expected amendments would prevent it from gaining traction in the Senate or becoming law.

"Regrettably, I get the sense that what I already consider to be a bad bill is going to get much worse in this markup and on the floor. That will simply ensure that this is a one-house bill," Berman said in his opening statement.

Specifically, Berman criticized the restrictions that Ros-Lehtinen's bill would place on U.S. assistance to Pakistan, notably the $1.5 billion provided by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package.

"On Pakistan, you tie all economic assistance to the certification in Kerry-Lugar that applied to security assistance, toughen the certification, and eliminate the waiver," Berman said. "I agree that we need to get tough with Pakistan on security assistance, but I fundamentally disagree with your approach on economic aid."

Ros-Lehtinen said that her bill would put Islamabad on notice "that it is no longer business as usual" when it comes to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.  She promised that the Pakistani government "will be held to account if they continue to refuse to cooperate with our efforts to eliminate the nuclear black market, destroy the remaining elements of Osama Bin Laden's network, and vigorously pursue our counter-terrorism objectives."

"I think the prospect of a cutoff of assistance will get their attention and that the games being played with our security will finally stop," she said.

AFP/Getty Images

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