After years of complaints about the lack of direction and mismanagement of U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB), the House Foreign Affairs Committee took a step toward long-overdue reform.

This morning the committee marked up H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Act of 2014, a bipartisan piece of legislation introduced by committee chairman Ed Royce (R–CA) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D–NY). The bill passed unanimously on a voice vote and reflects years of deep-seated dissatisfaction with the way USIB has been run. Matching legislation is being worked up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

At a time when Russia has ramped up its propaganda machine overwhelming U.S. capacity to reach the peoples of Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia itself, improved U.S. broadcasting capacity and public diplomacy strategy is urgently needed.

Stated Chairman Royce at the introduction of the bill:

So while our enemies are working 24/7 on their information campaigns, the organization at the helm of ours meets once a month. That’s a recipe for failure. Indeed, then Secretary Clinton told this Committee last year that the BBG [Broadcasting Board of Governors] is “practically defunct.” Reports from the Inspector General and [General Accountability Office] have agreed. As does nearly everyone with experience in this field, Republicans and Democrats alike.

The bill would achieve a number of important objectives, as outlined in a Heritage Issue Brief, “Time to Reform U.S. International Broadcasting”:

  • Management reform. Instead of the part-time, nine-member BBG, which has been attempting to run the $700 million-plus complex of broadcasters, the legislation would establish a full-time, day-to-day chief executive officer. The BBG would have an advisory role and help with reviews and quality control of programming.
  • Separating the missions and management of the two distinct types of broadcasting done by the U.S. government. Thus broadcasting would be separated into two distinct organizations, each with its own management and advisory board.
  • Public diplomacy support. One organization would be an Agency for International Broadcasting, housing Voice of America (VOA), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the physical assets of the broadcasters. Even though the VOA charter states that VOA will provide a “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States,” resistance has developed over time at VOA to this function. The President’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, for instance, outlines deep cuts in editorial content at VOA, continuing an worrying trend. This legislation makes clear that the VOA mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts.
  • Consolidation of “the Freedom Broadcasters.” Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network would be consolidated into a “grantee organization.” The mission of these broadcasters, which operate privately with grants from the U.S. government, is to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies who have no access to independent news.

The good news is that Congress is finally engaged fully on improving USIB.