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Gutierrez follows through on Holocaust Auschwitz-Birkenau grant

WASHINGTON — This is the tale about how a $15 million State Department grant to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation may finally be on its way years after the grant was announced.

The saga of this grant demonstrates the difficulty in getting the federal government to work even on a noncontroversial item.

In August 2010, I posted an item about the announcement of the $15 million grant to preserve Auschwitz-Birkenau as a remembrance of the horrors of genocide. The State Department was to distribute the funds over five years starting in 2012. Turned out it was not a done deal.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged the money, with the U.S. joining other nations to contribute to an endowment to maintain the German Nazi concentration camp in Poland, a major killing center of Jews during the Holocaust.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, nearly 1 million Jews were exterminated at Auschwitz. The Nazis also murdered about 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies or Roma and about 15,000 Soviet war prisoners at Auschwitz.

Congress went along with Clinton. To mark the $15 million grant, there was an Aug. 11, 2010, event at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, jointly hosted by the Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Chicago. The ceremony featured three Illinois Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Rep. Mike Quigley and Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

Time passed; the State Department never sent a check to the foundation. In all, 28 nations agreed to put up $160 million for the foundation, and the U.S is the only country not to honor its pledge.

One reason was that bureaucrats at State worried they could not give a grant to an endowment and fixing the problem might make the grant appear to be a banned “earmark” — or targeted, member-requested spending.

“There was never any ill will or resistance to fully fund Secretary Clinton’s 2010 pledge,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “But there were bureaucratic and political roadblocks that delayed the process.”

While Gutierrez is identified mainly with immigration reform, he visited Auschwitz in 2009 with other lawmakers. He has taken a lead ever since in trying to get the U.S. to contribute to the foundation, based in Poland, and, as the years passed, to make good on the pledge.

Quigley was in Poland with Clinton in 2010 when she made the promise. He is a member of the Appropriations Committee, and his office also worked back channels. Schakowsky kept tabs on the grant, but Gutierrez “kind of made it happen,” she told me.

The remedy to avoid an earmark designation was Congress approving money not explicitly for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation but implicitly for “a contribution to establish and maintain memorial sites of genocide, subject to the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.”

But that language — a paragraph tucked into section 7034(e)(2) of the massive Cromnibus budget bill the House passed on Dec. 11 — got the job done.

Quigley voted for the Cromnibus. The irony is that Gutierrez and Schakowsky did not. They strongly objected to other things in the bill.

Said Gutierrez of the money finally en route to the foundation, “It should have happened a long time ago, but I am pleased it is happening now.”