The World from The Hill: Helsinki panel a model of bipartisanship on foreign policy

The Democratic chairman of the Helsinki Commission is confident his panel will retain its tradition of bipartisan cooperation despite the intense partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill.

The panel has coverage areas that include security, economics and the environment, which are usually synonymous with partisan rancor. But other areas of interest for the commissioners know no party: human rights, press freedom, democratic institutions.

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"I don't recall ever seeing a partisan division in the Helsinki work," the current chairman, Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), said in an exclusive, sit-down interview with The Hill. "We sometimes will disagree on issues but I've never seen them come down across party lines."

In fact, the Maryland Democrat is really going to miss one of the staunchest conservatives on the commission.

"Sam Brownback is a tremendous loss for us," Cardin said, calling the former commission chairman and governor-elect of Kansas "very much dedicated to the issues."

The shifting political winds will also impact the Helsinki chairmanship. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) is likely to take over as chairman from Cardin because of the Republican takeover of the House. The chairmanship rotates by mandate from the Senate to the House every two years, which will make Cardin the new co-chairman.

But Cardin said the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, will continue to do business as usual as it transitions to Smith, reflecting a long-standing reputation of bipartisanship in action.

The lack of partisan rancor on the commission boils down to a shared passion for the goals of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a product of the Cold War that has adapted and found a key role in tackling arms control, human rights, freedom of the press and fair-elections issues in the modern world. The panel is composed of nine senators and nine House members divided between the two parties, as well as three executive branch representatives.

“It's for people who believe strongly in the role that the United States can play in advancing human rights, advancing democratic institutions and working with our colleagues in Europe and Central Asia on security and economic issues,” said Cardin, who joined the commission in 1993 as a House member.

In the next two years, the commission is expected to focus on myriad issues including Central Asia security, protection of investigative journalists and protection of the Roma population and ethnic minorities, including “the refugees particularly coming from the Middle East into the OSCE and their responsibilities to absorb some of the refugee population,” Cardin said.

He also expects energy issues and economic transparency to play a big role in the coming session, as well as child mortality issues, human trafficking and growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

“These are areas where the United States has taken the lead, so we will continue to monitor internationally the implementation of best practices,” he said. “One of the things we want to do is have sessions and follow-up meetings where you look at implementation of the commitments that we have initiated.”

The commission is losing some key members because of the election — the House side will likely lose Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is expected to have his hands full with the Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairmanship.

In addition to Brownback leaving on the Senate side, there will be another opening as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) retires.

Cardin said there is “absolutely” interest among senators in filling the position, “but I'm not going to mention specific names.”

“There is, I think, a growing interest in the [OSCE] and in the Helsinki Commission among members of the United States Senate,” the senator said. “We have had active participation from several senators in the last two years. They have participated in hearings, they have participated in meetings in other countries, they have participated in floor action, they have participated in so many different ways in related issues.”

He said he hopes that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will talk with him about the opening for the ranking Republican member. “I'd certainly give him advice on who of the Republican members have been the most actively involved,” Cardin said.

Even senators not on the panel have given an assist to Helsinki Commission priorities. Cardin worked with Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative; Lugar introduced the Energy Security Through Transparency Act of 2009 with Cardin and fellow commission members Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) as co-sponsors.

“We're closely working with Sen. Durbin, who's not on the commission but chairs the human rights subcommittee on the Judiciary Committee, and we've looked at ways we can work together within the Judiciary Committee and the Helsinki Commission,” Cardin said.


Among fellow members, Cardin lauds Whitehouse and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) for being “involved actively in meetings.”

His bipartisan work with Wicker particularly stands out, for example, when the two pushed for a sense of the Senate to shame Russia over its imprisonment of one-time oil tycoon and Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “I'm proud to continue working with Sen. Cardin to shine the light of day on this abuse,” Wicker told The Hill in September when the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on the case.

“Sen. Wicker's been extremely active on issues and has raised certain issues on the floor of the United States Senate as it relates to individual cases,” Cardin said.

The senator said his personal priorities moving forward will be “democratic institutional issues” such as protecting journalists and whistleblowers from attacks or government retribution. “Good governance to me is the first order of business for just about anything else in the country,” he said.

As the Helsinki Commission continues its agenda of hearings and its role as an incubator of international affairs legislation in the 112th Congress, Cardin is confident the panel will continue to do so in a way that's equitable to both sides of the aisle.

“The commission statute is specifically worded in a way to require a bipartisan operation for a lot of decisions,” he said. “You must have Democrats and Republicans working together. It's required under the commission and the co-chairmanships, which will require in this case a Democrat and a Republican on the administrative side to work together, which we will do.

“It's not going to be a problem at all,” he said of the party split in the upcoming chairmanship and co-chairmanship of the commission. “We've had this in the past without any problems.”