S.3654 of the 115th Congress
BBG

S.3654 and Accountability for the US Agency for Global Media

There is a bill pending in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would change the governance structure of the U.S. Agency on Global Media. While the bill is not perfect, it provides a necessary level of accountability and oversight that has been missing for the past two years. 

The bill, S.3654, would vest authorities into a reconstituted advisory board currently with the Chief Executive Officer of USAGM. Formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, USAGM took its name following the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 which included an amendment eliminating the board of governors and vesting all of the board’s authorities with the CEO. That legislation, signed into law on December 23, 2016, established a new “Advisory Board” to be constituted by any governor then currently serving on an unexpired term. This board had no authority and only provided advice at the request of the CEO. (Disclaimer: I was a governor on the Broadcasting Board of Governors at the time.) 

 The new bill put forward by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and with the support of the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), would alter the make-up of the advisory board and its authorities. 

First, S.3654 would remove from the CEO the authority to hire and fire the heads of any of the current five networks under the AGM. This authority was previously expressly vested with the CEO with the abolition of the board of governors. 

“(1) IN GENERAL.—The head of Voice of America, of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, of RFE/RL, Inc., of Radio Free Asia, of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, or of any other statutorily authorized grantee may only be appointed or removed if such action has been approved by a majority vote of the Advisory Board.

“(2) REMOVAL.—After consulting with the Chief Executive Officer, 5 or more members of the Advisory Board may unilaterally remove any such head of network or grantee network described in paragraph (1).

https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3654/text

Second, the advisory board would potentially be accountable for its advice and guidance to the CEO “for improving the effectiveness and efficiency” of the agency. In this bill, the advisory board would provide to the Congress its (presumably informed) advice it did, or would, give the CEO.

“(3) report periodically, or upon request, to the congressional committees specified in subsection (d)(2) regarding its advice and recommendations for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the United States Agency for Global Media and its programming;  

https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3654/text

Third, the advisory board would be immediately constituted by the governors then serving on December 23, 2016, when the legislation passed. At that time, the advisory board was to be composed of governors then serving on an unexpired term, but all of the governors were then serving beyond the expiration of their terms. The terms of two expired in August 2016 while the terms of the others expired in the years before. (Governors were appointed to staggered 3-yr terms. The intent was the White House would continually refresh the board, but this never happened as planned.)

“(b) Retention Of Existing Broadcasting Board Of Governors Members.—The presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed members of the Board of the Broadcasting Board of Governors who were serving as of December 23, 2016, shall—

“(1) constitute the first Advisory Board; and

“(2) hold office until replaced without reappointment to the Advisory Board.

https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3654/text

Fourth, future appointed members of the advisory board would serve for a single four-year term. There would be seven members in total, six appointments, with no more than 3 appointed members from the same political party, plus the Secretary of State. And members of the advisory board would continue to serve until replaced. 

It is the first point, vesting the authority to hire/fire network chiefs with the advisory board, that has raised the concerns of some. On its face, S.3654 limits the authority of the AGM CEO but it provides necessary oversight over the CEO. This oversight is presently lacking and while more is required than presently exists, S.3654 is a step in the right direction. 

Worth noting at this point is the current structure was championed by the present CEO against the stated direction of the majority of the board and intentionally hidden from the board and with the false assertion the board supported the change. This activity continued even beyond Election Day of 2016. 

The proposed structure has the potential of introducing friction at the leadership level as the advisory board has no direct authority over the CEO, and hiring/firing network chiefs is not a decision to take lightly. It would be preferred if the CEO was responsible to the board, thus limiting the influence of the White House, or Congress, on the CEO. This was the original intent when the board created the CEO position, but the S.3654 proposal is better than nothing. 

 The argument was made to me, before the NDAA amendment was enacted, that the United States Information Agency had a presidentially-appointed director and that there were no problems. This ahistorical assertion was, simply put, wrong. In 1957, for example, Congress was on the verge of defunding the then-four-year-old USIA in 1957 in part because of the director appointed by Eisenhower, a director who served barely a year. In 1985, for a later example, a Senator expressed extreme frustration, much of it justified, ranging from charges of nepotism to the USIA Director using tens of thousands of agency funds, tax dollars, for a home security system. 

The impact and thus value of the Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, lies in its ability to deploy news to areas of the world starved for journalism about what is happening in their own neighborhood, country, region, world, and the United States. This must uphold professional if idealized, standards of journalism. This is especially true as the target audiences are, by definition, highly aware of propaganda and are largely self-selecting seekers of news and truth. 

It provides news and information not just in the local dialect, but from the perspective of the local audience, unpacking and explaining terms and concepts that may be literally foreign to them, like the rule of law, accountability of their political leaders, and the like. This is not done by commercial media, and this is especially true in the primary markets AGM’s networks operate in, which, for the most part, have an absence of professional journalism. I, for example, have often said that the BBG, now AGM, operates in those places where SOCOM (U.S. Special Operations Command) is or will be. 

This requires professionalism, accountability, and an actual strategy to measure performance against. It means performance reviews of network chiefs, of the CEO, and not just specific language services. It means making sure market approaches are correct and aligned with U.S. national security and broader foreign policy requirements. It also means adhering to the foundational law governing these activities, notably the requirements put forth to draw down in markets where “private information dissemination is found to be adequate” and utilize, “to the maximum extent practicable, the services and facilities of private agencies, including existing American press, publishing, radio, motion picture, and other agencies, through contractual arrangements or otherwise” (22 USC 1462 and 22 USC 1437, respectively).

With nearly two years of the present experiment behind us, it appears more oversight is necessary. Perhaps it was “buyer’s remorse” from a lack of real analysis of the impact of the earlier NDAA amendment, but it appears Congress now recognizes the need of an advisory board to provide another layer of oversight and accountability.

The bill, S.3654, should be passed to help assure the efficient spending of our tax dollars, and the agency’s support to our national security and foreign policy goals. Considering the alternatives, this agency, if run smartly, is substantially less expensive than the necessary considering the alternatives, especially in today’s media environment and the active efforts of the like of Russia, China, Iran, and many others. 

2 Comments

  • Matt Armstrong

    I received a comment from a friend who pointed out another feature of S.3654 that authorizes the advisory board to “review budget submissions and strategic plans before they are submitted to the Office of Management and Budget or Congress.” I intentionally left that out of my above article for two reasons. The first is that the present text does not provide that the board shall approve the budget and plans, only that it may review such before they are sent to OMB or Congress. There is also no provision that any dissent of the board, a majority or otherwise, shall be included with the submission to the OMB or Congress. Thus the review authority is limited in its potential weight.

    The second reason I did not mention this authority is brevity. The article was long enough as it even before adding some version of the above paragraph to highlight a point of potentially minor consequentiality.

    I hope that helps.

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