lasted 262 hours.
The bottom line is this: the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act provides the best opportunity to get our leaders to take the action needed for peace since the war started in 1986 (check out the Legislation page to find out why), and one man is preventing its passage: Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
As this bill sits awaiting passage, the LRA continues to commit attacks against communities across central Africa and abduct children to fill its ranks.
You must be wondering how it is possible that one man can prevent this bill’s passage, or – maybe more – why he would want to obstruct action intended to stop Joseph Kony’s campaign of terror in central Africa.
Here’s the down and dirty:
You may be surprised to know that the majority of the bills that pass the Senate don’t actually get voted on. They pass under the rules of “unanimous consent,” meaning that once a bill clears the relevant committee, it gets passed without requiring debate on the Senate floor or a full Senate vote, but only if no Senators object (the bills only pass if there is unanimous support). It’s a way to save time on relatively uncontroversial pieces of legislation.
The other way a bill can pass the Senate is through a floor vote, when a simple majority of Senators voting in favor is required to pass a bill. But very few bills come to the floor for a full Senate vote because of the amount of time it takes. With the competing demands of health care reform and other national priorities, it would be nearly impossible to convince the Senate leadership to spend floor time debating and voting on the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act.
Normally, that would be ok, because with the extraordinary lobbying by thousands of Americans, our bill now has historic support in Congress. One would also assume that seeking to stop LRA violence against innocent civilians would be uncontroversial.
That’s where Senator Coburn comes in. Because of his views on how and when the U.S. government should spend money, he objected to the bill and is now the lone Senator blocking it's passage under the rules of “unanimous consent.” He does this by putting a “hold” on the bill, which can be maintained indefinitely.
That’s right: the only way our bill will pass is with unanimous consent, meaning that if Senator Coburn continues to block it, the bill will die when this session of Congress ends this summer.
We didn’t come up with the “Dr. No” nickname; it’s Senator Coburn’s nickname in the Senate because he blocks dozens and dozens of bills every year (see this Wall Street Journal article for more background). When Senator Coburn was elected in 2004, he made a promise to do everything he could to reduce the size of the American government's budget and deficit. Therefore, he blocks all bills that don’t meet his stringent criteria (see his criteria in this PDF), even when those bills are landmark efforts to help stop Joseph Kony’s abductions of children and end Africa’s longest running war.
His objection to the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act is that it authorizes $40 million in U.S. funds to be used over the next three years in support of relief efforts and the rebuilding of northern Uganda. Senator Coburn has said he will only allow the bill to pass if the bill is amended to specify where exactly the money should be taken from.
As open as we are to constructive compromises on the bill, meeting Senator Coburn's criteria simply isn't that easy. First, specificying where the money comes from (called an "offset") would kill the bill. Other Senators would object for a number of reasons to amending the bill in such a way. Second, the bill simply “authorizes” the money. The $40 million doesn't actually get "appropriated" until it goes through the formal budget process. As such, this bill does not add a dime to the U.S. government budget or deficit. In fact, in all likelihood, when the Appropriations Committee develops the actual budget, members of the committee would simply direct existing funds to fill the purposes outlined in the bill. That's why all 99 other Senators have no problem with the bill.
Intentionally or not, Senator Coburn's decision to hold this bill communicates that proving a point about government spending is more important than this historic opportunity to help achieve peace and protect thousands of innocent lives. Ultimately, Senator Coburn will not budge or strike a compromise unless he hears from an overwhelming number of Oklahomans and concerned Americans who feel otherwise.
Your action is the only thing that can save this legislation. Senator Coburn has a duty to represent his constituents while he is in Washington, DC. He claims that his beliefs are for the benefit of future generations of Americans, and it is exactly those young Americans that are at the forefront of the nationwide movement to pass this bill and see Joseph Kony’s reign of terror ended. So take action now and make sure that “Dr. No” hears a resounding YES from as many of you as possible. We must convey that we want a say in that future.
The fact that the bill has as much support in Congress as it does is due entirely to the tireless efforts of activists across the country. And Senator Coburn is much more likely to be convinced to compromise on this bill as a result of the progress made to date. Moreover, if we are able to get this bill passed, the success of activist efforts in garnering so many Congressional cosponsors for the bill will send a clear message to President Obama that the American people expect him to take firm action to resolve this issue.
It is highly unlikely that the bill would ever be voted on by the full Senate. That means that it will only pass with “unanimous consent.” So in short: no, the bill will not pass unless Senator Coburn allows it to happen. One man has the power to override the activism of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
We encourage you to come to your own conclusions on this matter, but our opinion, shared by 99 other Senators, is that even if Senator Coburn’s commitment to reducing the budget deficit is laudable, his choice of tactics goes too far. We believe his actions are deeply counterproductive.
Moreover, Senator Coburn has supported some bills in the past that do not meet his criteria. For instance, last year, he voted in favor of expanding the U.S.' HIV/AIDS programs by $35 billion, without offsets from other programs. This expansion in spending is close to 1000 times the amount being authorized in the bill.
The money in the bill that Senator Coburn objects to is absolutely crucial. As smart activists, we recognize that simply asking President Obama to step up the pursuit of Kony’s arrest does not address the underlying problems that gave rise to this violence. Most of the money in the bill is meant to support programs that do exactly that. We encourage you to read the text of the bill here (link to legislation text) to see for yourself how it would benefit the interests of peace in Uganda and the region.
To be signed into law by President Obama, BOTH the Senate and the House must first pass this legislation. So while it remains necessary to push the House version of the bill forward, Senator Coburn still has the capacity to prevent the bill’s passage by Congress.