For 18 months, the House Foreign Affairs Committee considered modest reforms for the Arms Export Control Act, yet when it came time to vote on it Wednesday the panel moved it to the floor with barely a murmur and a voice vote of acclamation.
The complex measure, meant to tighten up the presale review of sensitive weapons equipment and technology to foreign powers and streamline the process for vetting the sales, embraced only one provision that prompted much discussion of the bill.
That provision, fostered mainly by Foreign Affairs ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, made it clear that any removal of North Korea from the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors would have to meet stringent conditions.
Among those conditions, Ros-Lehtinen told the panel, was that North Korea would have to declare all of its nuclear programs and submit to regular International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. "Not just one reactor," she said, "not just plutonium activities, but all of its nuclear programs."
Another condition embodied in the bill would require North Korea to halt all nuclear assistance to other countries, especially Syria and Iran, before it could be delisted.
The bipartisan bill -- co-sponsored by Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman, both California Democrats, as well as Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill. -- elevates South Korea and Israel to the same privileged treatment in obtaining U.S. weapons and technology as America's NATO allies, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Also regarding Israel, the bill bolsters Congress' oversight over the security pledges, often granted in secret, by U.S. presidents to that country, including any revisions in those promises over the years since 1975. "I'm concerned," Berman said, "that these assurances aren't subject to rigorous compilation and review, leaving [the] committee unaware of the exact range of our commitments to an important ally.
"Under the new provision, the committee will receive copies of such security assurances and any revisions, as well as a full summation every five years, so that we may independently assess the extent to which those assurances are being met," he said.
As part of the North Korea situation, the new legislation gives the president the authority to waive current U.S. obstacles to assisting that country in demobilizing its nuclear programs. Current law, for example, prevents the Energy Department from paying for its own costs in helping North Korea dismantle its nuclear facilities.
Manzullo noted that the bill also aims to bolster the State Department's workforce in handling applications for licenses to sell and ship U.S. weapons and technology to allies and other approved foreign buyers. For close allies, he said, the department would be expected to process trade licenses in 30 days; for others, 60 days.
Manzullo said the State Department's backlog of unprocessed applications stands now at about 3,800 and would take years to erase without a significant increase in the number of trained licensing officers.
The bill also would open for public viewing some nonproprietary information about arms shipments abroad, including the identity of the manufacturers and a description of their wares. The State Department now treats such information as confidential.
The legislation says that withholding such information "is not necessary to protect legitimate proprietary interests or persons or their prices and customers, is not in the best security and foreign policy interests of the United States, is inconsistent with the need to insure a level playing field for U.S. exporters, and detracts from [U.S.] efforts to promote greater transparency and responsibility by other countries in their export control systems."
Before sending the bill to the floor, the committee adopted, by voice vote, an amendment by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, to "assess the extent to which export control policies and practices promote the protection of human rights" and to discourage the trafficking in arms from and to countries that may be involved in the mass killings in Darfur.
This article appears in the May 3, 2008, edition of NJ Daily.