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Senators move ahead with enhancing Olympics oversight

Commerce Committee advanced bill after debate about role of Congress

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., left, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., are leading legislation to give Congress more authority over Olympic sports. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., left, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., are leading legislation to give Congress more authority over Olympic sports. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators moved ahead with an effort to enhance congressional oversight of U.S. participation in the Olympics on Wednesday, part of an ongoing response to recent sexual abuse scandals in sports.

The voice vote by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to advance an amended version of a bipartisan bill came despite concerns raised by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The legislation, which came about as a result of a bipartisan investigation led by Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, appears to need more work before reaching the Senate floor since senators on both sides of the aisle raised some concerns, particularly about procedure.

As amended, the Moran-Blumenthal measure would make it easier for Congress to get rid of members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and to decertify national governing bodies, or NGBs, that oversee individual Olympic and amateur sports if they fail to protect athletes from abuse.

The bill provides an expedited procedure for a joint resolution on the Senate floor, provided that 60 senators agree to proceed.

“I’m not surprised the U.S. Olympic Committee doesn’t want Congress to have that leverage. It’s the reason that we need the leverage, is to get their attention,” Moran said Wednesday.

Sen. Mike Lee cautioned against granting Congress the authority to disband the USOPC, particularly on an accelerated timeline. He offered an amendment to strike that language from the bill that did not advance.

“There’s no question that the abuse that took place under the umbrella of the Olympic Committee was tragic, and that things need to be done,” the Utah Republican said.

Lee expressed particular concern about the scope, saying it was, “not limited in any way, shape or form to abuse. Not sexual abuse, not physical abuse, not any kind of abuse. It is a veto effectively, not just a veto of an individual decision. It’s a veto of the USOPC itself, and of the NGBs. They can just vitiate them, dissolve them. That’s a very blunt instrument, and it’s a big deal.”

Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the USOPC, said in a letter to committee members on Tuesday that the enhanced congressional powers could lead to consequences from the International Olympic Committee.

“The USOPC should be the sole entity with authority to terminate NGB recognition in order to eliminate any confusion surrounding NGB accountability. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee has made clear that Congress assuming the power to dissolve the USOPC board would violate the Olympic Charter and endanger our recognition by the IOC as a National Olympic Committee,” Hirshland wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CQ Roll Call.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., quoted from the Hirshland letter during the markup, but he noted that other countries regularly have state interference in Olympic committees.

“There’s no outrage from the International Olympic Committee about government interference from China’s own Olympic Committee,” Gardner said. “There’s no call for Gou Zhongwen to step down from his position that is either from the government or from the Olympic Committee to ensure that there’s no interference, so that this interference standard can be upheld.” (Gou Zhongwen is the president of the Chinese Olympic Committee.)

During debate on the Lee amendment, it became clear that several Commerce committee members had concerns about the expedited procedures.

 “I would hate that the United States Senate should turn into a body, that we would have a resolution that would be binding on the Senate floor for a vote without understanding exactly what we are voting on,” said Maria Cantwell of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked how language in the bill would actually change operations on the Senate floor, which was the cue for Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, a senior member of the Commerce panel, to enter the conversation.

Blunt compared the process proposed by Moran and Blumenthal to the Congressional Review Act, which is an expedited process used for attempts to overturn rule-making by the executive branch.

“It does change the rules. Whether we’d use it often or it would be a particular impediment, I don’t know,” Blunt said. “But, it does establish a new order of recognition on this particular issue.”

After the markup, the USOPC said it would review the amended bill and continue to engage with senators as the legislation moves toward the floor.

“Simultaneously, we will also continue to push forward on our own reforms, including the recent amendments to our organizational bylaws, the most significant reforms to the Olympic and Paralympic community in the United States in nearly two decades,” spokesman Mark Jones said.

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