Democrats seeking to revive stalled measures on Darfur

Even though the 109th Congress delivered a bipartisan Darfur sanctions bill to the president’s desk, some Democrats are looking to use their new majority on Capitol Hill to push through a pair of Darfur-related measures that stalled last year.

Two House Democrats, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (N.Y.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), have introduced legislation that looks to use Congress’s budgetary powers to address the humanitarian crisis in the Sudanese region.

The legislation has triggered debate about the extent to which fiscal policy should be used to address the crisis, which was classified as genocide by the Bush administration in 2004. Now that they are in control of Congress, Democrats are applying pressure on their leaders to tackle Darfur legislation, a cause which has the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Lee’s legislation would secure the ability of states to prohibit investment of funds tied to the Sudanese government. The provision regarding state divestiture stipulates that “(n)othing in this Act or any other provision of law shall be construed to preempt any State law that prohibits investment of State funds, including State pension funds, in or relating to Sudan.” Currently, four states — Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon and Maine — have passed divestiture legislation, while many others, including California, New York and Texas, have considered similar bills.

The bulk of the legislation, however, possesses more sweeping provisions, including prohibiting federal contracts with companies conducting business in Sudan, subject to exceptions including humanitarian efforts as well as ongoing and prospective peacekeeping missions. The bill also calls for such businesses to disclose their dealings to the Securities and Exchange Commission and requires that the Government Accountability Office investigate whether federal retirement funds are tied to such companies.

Lee spoke to the practical importance of such legislation in an e-mailed response. “No one should have to worry that their tax dollars or their pension funds are supporting genocide,” he wrote. “The Darfur Divestment and Accountability Act is designed to wash the blood off of our federal contracts, protect the rights of states to divest their own public pension funds from companies doing business in Sudan and increase the financial pressure on Khartoum to end the genocide in Darfur.” Lee’s office also released a list of companies that received federal contracts while doing business within Sudan over the past several years, including Siemens AG and ABB.

ABB communicated to The Hill in early January that it was suspending its business activities in Sudan. Thomas Schmidt, a spokesman for ABB, stated, “ABB suspended its business with Sudan until we believe that the risk factors have improved. However, we will stay committed to humanitarian work in the country.”

German-based Siemens has reportedly decided to pull out its business divisions located in Sudan as the European Union is considering sanction measures against the Sudanese government.

Rangel has reintroduced legislation that would deny the foreign tax credit as well as other tax benefits to American companies doing business in Sudan unless the Khartoum regime achieves certain benchmarks to end the genocide in the Darfur region.

Both measures, however, faced significant blowback under the previous GOP-controlled Congress. Congress passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act last October, which employed sanctions on the Sudanese government and called for additional support for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. However, the bill was signed into law without the divestiture language that is currently in the Lee bill, after the House passed its version with the provision.

Former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) figured significantly in the removal of the divestiture provision, working with others to reach an agreement on removing the language. Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar, stated that the senator believed the bill would be blocked by holds from others in the Senate and that it would not reach the full floor if the language remained. He added that this did not represent the senator’s opposition.

The Rangel bill failed to move through the Ways and Means committee in the nearly two-year span since it was introduced in March of 2005, when the committee was chaired by former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). Rep. Michael McNulty (D-N.Y.), who cosponsored the earlier Rangel bill, in discussing why it did not move during the 109th session, answered, “It was clearly not a priority of the [Republican committee] majority at the time.”

Asked whether the bill’s prospects of passage were heightened in the new Congress, McNulty responded, “Absolutely, you have Charlie leading the way.”

Rangel’s press office could not be reached by press time.

A separate Democratic committee source added that any legislation offered by Rangel, including the Sudan bill, had little if any chance of moving under the Thomas chairmanship. The source added that in addition to partisan motivations, Republicans have historically shown an aversion to using tax policy to address a foreign-policy matter, in spite of such measures being used previously in the context of South Africa. A representative from the Republican-minority side of the committee could not be reached by press time.

The Lee legislation, which she also introduced in the last session, has already acquired substantial support from party leaders. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who is a cosponsor, as well as the Financial Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who co-sponsored the earlier version. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Pelosi also co-sponsored the earlier version of the Lee bill.

The Sudanese government has waged an expansive military effort, alongside the Janjaweed militia, in the western region of Darfur after rebels waged a separatist movement in 2003. The Khartoum regime and the largest member of the rebel coalition signed a peace agreement last May; however, the remaining rebel groups did not sign the agreement. Casualty estimates have ranged between 180,000 and 400,000.