Can 2014's aid legislative losers make a comeback in the 114th Congress?

A view of the U.S. Capitol at dawn. A new year means a clean slate for the U.S. congressional calendar. What aid legislations may make a comeback this 2015? Photo by: Architect of the Capitol

As the U.S. government enters 2015 with a brand new “omnibus spending bill” in tow, advocates of various pieces of foreign aid legislation are looking to the 114th Congress to make progress where the 113th did not.

The new, Republican-dominated Congress could present new challenges — and some unexpected boons — for bills that pertain to foreign aid. In many cases, the biggest challenge remains attracting attention to development programs when so many other issues tend to dominate the legislative agenda.

We’ve compiled a list of aid legislation that stalled in 2014 and considered the bills’ respective chances at making a comeback. Here’s a look at the past, present and future of aid legislation in the U.S. Congress as we enter a season of cautious optimism in Washington, D.C.

1. Feed the Future.

Launched in 2010, Feed the Future is a signature initiative for the Obama administration and outgoing U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah. The $1 billion program fights hunger with agricultural programs in 19 target countries. Now the challenge is securing that initiative beyond the current administration’s tenure.

A new bill, the Global Food Security Act of 2014, would have authorized Feed the Future for one year — less than what advocates hoped for, but still a step in the right direction. The bill passed the House Dec. 11, and while the bill is relatively uncontroversial, it failed to get the Senate’s attention in 2014. But advocates are hopeful a little more time and energy will see it to the floor.

Feed the Future is funded under the new budget agreement, but as Katie Lee, policy manager at InterAction, told Devex, “There is no assurance that the program would continue past the Obama administration without a firm authorization structure.”

Getting the bill passed will likely be a major focus in the final month’s of Shah’s leadership at USAID.

2. Food aid reform.

The Coast Guard Maritime Transportation Act of 2014 had some U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations concerned about new restrictions placed on food aid cargo shipped overseas. A typical reauthorization bill by most standards, it included three sections that would have negatively affected food aid transport, according to some advocacy groups like InterAction.

The first — section 318 of House Res. 4005 — would have increased the amount of U.S.-originating food aid that must be transported on U.S.-flagged vessels from 50 to 75 percent, drastically increasing logistical difficulties and overall costs to food aid providers. The second and third, section 316 of the same resolution and 321 of House Res. 5769, would have granted the transportation secretary unilateral power to interpret cargo laws in the transport of food aid, leaving out key NGO and aid agency voices in decision-making.

Hours shy of the December deadline, the last of the three sections was removed from the bill and the measure passed the Senate.

Food aid reform champions fought hard in 2014 to make the issue a priority and to end a practice known as “monetization.” Advocates will likely continue their efforts in 2015 to uncouple emergency food assistance from U.S. shipping and agricultural interests, though it remains to be seen whether the White House will put its weight behind the issue as it has in the past.

3. Water for the World.

The Water for the World Act of 2014 builds on the 2005 Water for the Poor Act, reallocating current funds to improve communities’ access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in U.S. foreign aid programming.

Because the measure didn’t require additional taxpayer dollars, it was an easy sell to Congress in 2014, clearing both the House and Senate unanimously and becoming law on Dec. 17.

Looking back, however, Lisa Schechtman, director of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in the United States, noted that passing the bill required a whole lot more than budget appeal. Advocates were able to demonstrate the centrality of water to a wide variety of other issues and broaden their base of support.

“No matter what someone's priority area might be, [safe water] probably impacts it,” Schechtman told Devex. “Our coalition of NGOs and faith-based organizations working on the bill [includes] organizations working on sexual and reproductive health, violence against women, child survival, nutrition and humanitarian relief.”

4. Global Development Lab.

2014 saw the creation of the Global Development Lab — another signature initiative from Shah and Obama — as well as the appointment of Ann Mei Chang as its first executive director. But the new innovation platform within USAID is still waiting for congressional authorization.

The Global Development Lab Act of 2014, introduced in June, seeks to institutionalize “transformative development solutions,” despite operating within what many development professionals consider cumbersome bureaucracy. The lab has shown some results recently. Open-source calls for innovations to improve Ebola protective gear — the Ebola Grand Challenge — nominated finalists after only three months of proposal solicitation.

The bill was referred in June to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where it has languished. However, the 2015 budget’s language around State and Foreign Operations directs USAID to continue and enhance its focus on innovation — a gesture that bodes well for potential authorization in 2015.

5. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 overhaul.

Many feel a rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act — the 1961 bill that created USAID, among other things — is long overdue.

Yet as expected, the FAA overhaul — a proposal for which was penned by Democrat and former Rep. Howard Berman of California — has yet to find much support on Capitol Hill, and shows no signs of resuscitation for 2015.

Berman’s version sought to “establish a framework for effective, transparent and accountable United States foreign assistance,” and to better clarify the relationships between USAID, the State Department, and the various other initiatives and agencies that compose development assistance.

The FAA of 1961 remains the blueprint for U.S. foreign aid operations, despite preceding new and relevant considerations for global politics and development, such as the Internet and climate change.

6. International trade.

U.S. President Barack Obama told advocates in early December that he would work with Congress in 2015 to get bipartisan renewal of the trade promotion authority to encourage U.S. exports and support American jobs.

Although TPA is unpopular with unions and many Democrats, the renewal is considered a critical step toward finalizing negotiations on the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes the United States, Canada and 10 countries in Asia and the Pacific. Renewal of the TPA could also jump-start the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, as well as other measures on Obama’s trade agenda, like the Trade in Services Agreement and the Environmental Goods Agreement.

Republican and former Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, along with Orrin Hatch, the most-senior Republican senator from Utah, and Democrat and former Sen. Max Baucus of Montana introduced in January the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, which failed to advance out of committee.

Hatch, who accepted the 2014 World Trade Award at the National Foreign Trade Council’s centennial dinner earlier this month, is however set to become chair of the Senate Finance Committee and vowed in his acceptance speech to make TPA a top priority, along with renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences duty-free benefits, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, as well as closer treatment of intellectual property legislation — all measures worth watching in 2015.

Only time will tell, but this points to international trade legislation as one of only a few legislative opportunities with enough bipartisan steam behind it to make it through the 114th congress.

7. AGOA reauthorization.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act, a U.S. trade preference program originally signed into law in 2000, has sought to spur market-led growth and development in sub-Saharan Africa and to strengthen U.S. trade relations in the region. Congress has amended AGOA five times, extending its authorization until September 2015.

Looking forward, reduced petrochemical exports from African countries to the U.S. in recent years could mean a less-favorable outcome in 2015 for the AGOA authorization under the Republican-led Congress. At the same time, overall trade to and from the region has increased 300 percent since AGOA’s first year, and the reauthorization is considered by experts to be kindred legislation to other significant measures, like Energize Africa and the Power Africa initiative.

8. Power Africa and OPIC reauthorization.

President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which aims to promote public and private investment in African energy projects, was authorized by the house in May as The Electrify Africa Act of 2014. It was introduced two months later in the Senate as the Energize Africa Act of 2014, which is when the congressional clock ran out for this measure.

Still, Tom Hart, executive director of the ONE Campaign, insists the bill has the support and clarity needed to get through both houses next year, and is hopeful that Energize Africa will become a lasting legacy of the Obama administration.

“We’re not starting from ground zero on this issue,” Hart told Devex. “And we have legislation that both sides have agreed on that they want to see moved, so we’ve got the runway to move forward next year.”

Advocates who feared the bill’s reliance on investment from the controversial Overseas Private Investment Corp. would hold up progress because of OPIC’s questionable environmental record are looking toward the 114th Congress with guarded optimism. The Republican-powered Congress, some think, could mean more openness to granting OPIC increased flexibility in its lending, a necessary shift in order to add 20,000 megawatts to Africa’s power grid by 2020.

9. IMF quota reform.

The International Monetary Fund quota reforms first proposed in 2010 would redistribute shares in the IMF to reflect the current global economy. Conservatives in Congress oppose the reforms because the U.S. would lose sovereignty as the world’s largest economy and ruling IMF shareholder — China outpaced the U.S. in October in goods and services produced, according to IMF statistics — and also because it would lose access to money invested in the IMF’s supplementary funds.

“We very much hope that the different branches of the US authorities ... will understand the relevance of having an IMF that is representative of the global economy and includes the people that should sit at the table,” IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told participants during the annual meetings in October. “Now this has not happened.”

The appropriations bill approved last month once again ignored the IMF, and with a conservative-heavy incumbent Congress, the current quota reform package stands little chance in 2015.

Riley Brands contributed reporting.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.