A new bill has passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee with bipartisan support. The USICA bill, if it passes into law–it is expected to be taken up by the full House as early as this summer and the Senate is working on a similar bill–will abolish the current USIB Act, and the current bipartisan board in charge of international communications for US media, as well as the IBB, will be replaced with a new CEO vested with the authorities currently entrusted to the groups.
The bill was explained for members and committees of Congress in a report published recently by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which was written by Matthew Weed. Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), who is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the legislation was essential in the face of negative and inaccurate information increasingly disseminated about the United States abroad, referring to “countries like Russia” and their information campaigns.
The United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490) was introduced April 28 by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce with co-sponsors, and the Committee voted in favor of the bill April 30.
The bill states that the BBG “operates poorly under a flawed structure, that the BBG’s internal operations and personnel
decision making have deficiencies, and that U.S. international broadcasters lack clearly defined missions.” The flaw of the “international broadcasters” leads, the bill finds, to “duplicative services and a lack of focus on the ‘public diplomacy’ and ‘surrogate’ missions of the broadcasters.”
The bill has several central provisions. One provision is the creation of a US International Communications Agency (USICA). If the bill is enacted, the current USIB Act would be repealed in its entirety (although HR4490 includes several provisions similar to those in USIB), and effectively abolish the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). A new agency–USICA–would be established.
There would also be a new board, which would presumably mirror the BBG’s structure. But the USICA Board would only have an advisory role in the new agency. The authority over communications–which is now vested in the bipartisan BBG board of nine governors–would instead be vested in a new USICA Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The CEO would also have the authorities currently vested in the IBB. The board would retain the power to appoint and remove the CEO.
The current system under the BBG is a presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed board, with the Secretary of State serving as the ninth member ex officio. The BBG oversees the IBB, VOA, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB and Radio/TV Marti), Radio Free Europe/Radio Libety (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).
The bill also provides that US international broadcasting “is alligned with ‘broad’ US foreign policy interests, and reduce overlap in broadcast services.” The bill will do this by requiring the USICA and a new grantee surrogate “Freedom News Network” (FNN) to meet regularly and “coordinate with the US Department of State to share relevant information.”
The USICA would answer and report to Congress, including on matters such as “the size of the workforce, the structure of the organization, contracting methods and practices, and language services performance.”
Modern US international broadcasting is said to have begun during World War II. Since 1994 (United States International Broadcasting Act; USIB Act), all US international communications have been handled by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) within the United States Information Agency (USIA). Members of Congress have frequently expressed interest in oversight over the BBG and its individual broadcasters, according to the congressional report. In 1998, Congress passed legislation establishing the BBG as an independent entity within the executive branch at the same time that it incorporated USIA’s functions into the State Department.
Bill HR4490 and the wider issue of increased congressional power over US broadcasting is expected to receive increased congressional attention during the second session of the 114th Congress, which began January 3.
By Day Blakely Donaldson