Biden's 'skinny budget' to give first look at US aid plans

U.S. President Joe Biden on his way to the Oval Office. Photo by: Adam Schultz / Official White House photo

A pared-down preview of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first budget request — known as the “skinny budget” — is expected to arrive as soon as Wednesday or Thursday. It will offer a first look at whether the administration’s rhetorical embrace of global development will translate into a major push for more funding.

The White House is set to release its full budget request for the 2022 fiscal year later this spring. This preliminary version is likely to include top-line numbers that send signals about where the administration’s priorities lie. U.S. aid advocates will be looking closely at the international affairs budget — known as the “150 account.”

“I would expect a big number,” said Paul Foldi, who leads the Council of International Development Companies. “If you don’t ask in the first year, you’re not going to get it in the second.”

Congress ultimately determines spending levels, and lawmakers pay varying degrees of attention to what the White House suggests. During former President Barack Obama’s administration, the White House proposal routinely set the high-water mark, with Congress appropriating less than requested.

“The international affairs budget can’t be the same if we’re going to protect the interests of the American people.”

— Liz Schrayer, president and CEO, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

Former President Donald Trump proposed four consecutive budgets that would have slashed foreign assistance spending by double-digit percentages. Lawmakers completely ignored most of those suggestions. But they did find common ground with Trump’s White House on a few significant priorities, such as creating and boosting funding for the U.S. International Development Finance Corp.

Members of Biden’s team — and his nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development — have already stated some of their biggest priorities: the international COVID-19 response, climate change, conflict and state collapse, and democratic backsliding. This preliminary budget could offer a clearer picture of how they hope to fund them at a moment when the pandemic has wreaked havoc on nearly every aspect of development cooperation.

“The world has literally been turned upside down since last year’s budget cycle,” said Liz Schrayer, president and CEO at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an influential bipartisan advocacy organization for development and diplomacy.

In fiscal year 2022, “the international affairs budget can’t be the same if we’re going to protect the interests of the American people,” she said.

USGLC consulted with more than two dozen experts to develop a needs assessment for international affairs funding in light of the pandemic, which was shared exclusively with Devex. The number the organization came up with was an additional $14 billion above what was enacted for fiscal year 2021, excluding emergency funding that has since been added. That would amount to $71.6 billion for the international affairs budget in 2022.

The analysis found a need for 650 new positions at USAID, to bring the agency up to 2,500 permanent foreign service members. It also identified $2.5 billion in additional need for new and existing U.S. global health programs, as well as $3.5 billion in development and economic assistance to recover from the pandemic and compete with China’s aid plans.

USGLC’s analysis of budget needs for fiscal year 2022, compared with enacted spending for fiscal year 2021.

Schrayer noted that a $14 billion boost for international affairs would amount to 0.0003% of total federal spending. As a percentage of gross domestic product, she said, funding for development and diplomacy is half of what it was at its Cold War peak.

If Biden does propose a significantly scaled-up international affairs budget, there is no guarantee Congress will agree to it.

U.S. aid supporters often celebrate a “bipartisan consensus” on the value of global development, which many credit with protecting against the Trump administration’s efforts to slash funding. Whether the same consensus will apply to a major budget increase, however, is far less certain.

“We don’t know how, in a very polarized Washington, D.C., budget conversations will take place and play out,” Schrayer said.

“But what I do know is there’s bipartisan support that development and diplomacy are critical tools for our national interest,” she added.

Four Democratic politicians have proposed an increase approaching the scale of need that USGLC has identified.

Earlier this month Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, and Rep. Ami Bera of California released the plan, titled “Investing in 21st Century Diplomacy,” which calls for $12 billion in additional funding above last year’s appropriation for the State Department and USAID.

Their bill targets a comparatively massive increase — over $6 billion — in global health funding.

Republican lawmakers, particularly Sen. James Risch of Idaho, have proposed legislation to enhance U.S. leadership in global health security, but so far these have not been accompanied by calls for a major foreign aid budget increase.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.