Gustavo Duncan: “narcotrafficking and private armies will continue to persist” The hydra loses a head
Sep 092007

Sen. Mel Martinez, author of the withdrawn Colombia amendments.

On Thursday, many colleagues and I were in Montreal for a Latin American Studies Association conference. While we were gone, the Senate debated and approved the 2008 foreign aid bill.

To our surprise, Senate Republicans introduced two amendments that would have reversed cuts in military assistance to Colombia, and weakened conditions on the fumigation program. Before they could come to a debate or a vote, though, the amendments’ Republican sponsors withdrew them.

Here is a very broad overview of the military-to-economic aid proportions in the House and Senate versions of the 2008 aid bill. All figures are in millions of dollars. They do not include about $150 million in additional military aid that comes through the Defense Department’s counter-narcotics budget, which is an entirely different funding bill.

Military aid Economic aid Total
Bush administration request 450.2 (76%) 139.5 (24%) 589.7
House of Representatives 289.8 (55%) 240.8 (45%) 530.6
Senate 359.5 (64%) 201.4 (36%) 560.9

The House of Representatives’ bill, which was passed back in June, goes farther than the Senate’s version. It cuts military assistance to Colombia by $160.4 million, and restores $101.3 million as new economic aid. The House also includes stronger human-rights safeguards and more stringent conditions on the aerial coca fumigation program than the Senate’s bill does.

The Senate still shifts the military-to-economic aid proportions significantly. The bill was principally authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) – chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and a long-time critic of the U.S. strategy in Colombia. Sen. Leahy and his staff did not go as far as the House bill primarily because his party’s majority is much slimmer in the Senate (51 to 49) than in the House (233 to 202). They did not want to provoke a “negative” amendment from the Republican minority seeking to undo changes to the Colombia aid.

Yet a challenging amendment came anyway. On Thursday, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Florida) introduced 4 amendments related to Latin America: two on Cuba and two on Colombia. (Read page S11171 of the transcript.) Martinez had the approval of Sen. Leahy’s Republican counterpart on the foreign aid subcommittee, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire).

Martinez’s two Colombia amendments would have

  • Weakening conditions on aerial coca fumigation, allowing it to proceed with less-stringent tests for health, environment, compensation for mistaken spraying, access to alternative development, and consideration of manual eradication as an alternative.
  • Increasing the amount of money available for aerial eradication by $30 million, thereby reducing the bill’s military-and-police aid cut by half.

Sen. Martinez had this to say on his behalf.

Rather than hamstring and tie down the Colombian forces and eliminate eradication, we are changing the language to permit it where necessary, when to do otherwise would endanger the life of Colombians.

Drug eradication is vitally important. To allow the current language in the bill would diminish these important efforts so that we can eradicate drugs in the Colombian fields and not have to deal with them in our neighborhoods.

(Never mind that thirteen years of fumigation in Colombia have utterly failed to keep drugs out of our neighborhoods.)

Sen. Gregg added:

“I honestly haven’t understood what seems to be an antipathy from the intelligentsia in the United States, especially the Northeast intelligentsia, toward President Uribe and his government.”

(Yes, no doubt President Uribe was a frequent topic of conversation at dinner parties all over the Vineyard this summer.)

Had these Colombia amendments come to a vote, it would have been a nail-biter. Most of the 49 Senate Republicans would have lined up behind Sens. Martinez and Gregg (and, by extension, President Bush). They might have taken with them enough of the 51 Democrats (50 without the ailing Sen. Tim Johnson [D-South Dakota]) to win a majority. Unlike the House, where the majority of Democrats have consistently voted for amendments cutting Plan Colombia military aid, a significant contingent of more hawkish Democratic Senators have supported the “tougher” policy ever since Bill Clinton proposed it in 2000.

In the end, though, Martinez’s Colombia proposals did not come to a vote. A deal was cut. Martinez ended up withdrawing three of his amendments – one Cuba and both Colombia provisions – in exchange for Sen. Leahy agreeing to add his remaining Cuba amendment to the bill’s language.

The House and Senate have now both finished the aid bill. The House version, again, includes stronger changes to the proportion between military and economic aid, and stronger human-rights and fumigation conditions. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that the final bill will more closely resemble the House version – though of course I could be wrong, and the end result will be at a mid-point somewhere between both houses’ bills.

5 Responses to “A challenge, almost, in the Senate”

  1. boz Says:

    Actually, as of last week, Tim Johnson is back to work in the Senate.

  2. Suzanna Says:

    Could you possibly explain the process that will be used to reach the ‘final bill’? This is a piece of how our legislature works that I do not understand. Thank you.

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    This is the piece of how our legislature works that is least transparent and most problematic.

    Once the House and Senate have each completed their versions of a bill, the two versions go to a “Conference Committee,” which drafts a compromise bill that reconciles all the differences between the two versions.

    The Conference Committee is usually made up of leaders of the committees that drafted the bill to begin with. (In the case of the Foreign Operations bill, those would be the chairmen, ranking minority members, and others from the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittees.)

    The compromise bill (the “Conference Report”) then goes back to both houses of Congress, who must vote on it again to approve it. Bills are hardly ever rejected at this phase, and debate is usually short.

    The Conference Committee process is where some major back-room negotiations take place. The rules governing the process are very fuzzy. As a result, it has some serious problems:

    1. It is very hard for anyone on the outside to find out what is happening in the conference committee’s deliberations. In fact, those deliberations often happen without the committee’s members physically meeting. Much seems to happen with staffers communicating on the phone and by email.

    2. If the committee doesn’t even meet, key members can get shut out of the process. The Republican congresses of 1994-2006 were notorious for failing to invite senior Democratic Conference Committee members into the compromise discussions. The dialogue was often between Republicans and Republicans only. The Democrats had to “take or leave” the resulting conference reports.

    3. Nothing can stop the Conference Committee from adding provisions to the bill that weren’t in the House and Senate versions. Or, for that matter, from removing provisions that were approved by both the House and Senate bills. This happens rarely, but it does happen.

    In 2003, for instance, when both houses included a provision in the foreign aid bill prohibiting funding to enforce the Cuba travel ban. The Conference Committee simply removed the Cuba language from the final bill, thus negating everything the House and Senate had done before. (See

  4. John Says:

    The Senate’s version, if you include the $150 million in Defense Department monies for Colombia, would essentially leave the percentages of Plan Colombia funds dedicated to military aid untouched from previous years – at more than 80%.

    You’ve explained well the dynamics by which Sen. Leahy feels insecure about doing more in the Senate. But I have to wonder about the continuous crowing about a victory in this year’s legislation regarding military vs. non-military aid to Colombia. It looks very much the same, with a few tweaks. Given the nil results in coca and cocaine, why no one is questioning the overall strategy speaks more to the inertia and lack of imagination in Washington than to any sea change resulting from Democratic majorities in Congress.

  5. Adam Isacson Says:

    John, of course you’re right. If the House’s version of the bill wins out, we’re talking about only a 25% reduction in Colombia’s total military and police assistance. That’s nothing to be “crowing” about – and nothing to be complacent about, especially since the goal for next year is to continue the momentum.

    However, it’s still really nice, after seeing aid to Colombia get steadily more militarized every year since the mid-90s, to finally see things moving, even a bit, in the other direction. And just about nothing in Washington ever moves quickly, even when there is a groundswell of popular clamor for change. (Which, unfortunately, there is not on Colombia – too many Congressional staffers tell us that they never hear from constituents on this issue.)

    Changing a policy here is often compared to “making a supertanker do a u-turn.” That’s about right. The goal now is to keep turning!

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