Congress is working quickly, but not on foreign aid

The U.S. Capitol building. Both houses of the U.S. Congress are proposing cuts to foreign aid to reduce deficit and boost defense spending. Photo by: Elliott P. / CC BY-SA

Before recessing, both houses of the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress passed their first budget plans since 2010. And while the Senate’s budget would cut foreign aid 5 percent, the House of Representatives is seeking an 18 percent reduction in the country’s development spending for fiscal year 2016.

As Congress begins the process of reconciling the two budgets, pressure is mounting to make additional cuts to reduce the deficit and boost defense spending.

The Department of Defense reported that even with proposed increases to defense-related funding in the Overseas Contingency Operations account — an average 30 percent increase from 2015 levels — the increase won’t meet needs for training, maintenance or procurement, none of which come out of OCO.

To offset those bumps in defense spending, at least one member of Congress is gunning for foreign aid. Foreign-aid related OCO funding was cut in half in the House’s proposal, and budget hawks in the Senate are pushing for more.

In an unlimited amendment period in the Senate known as “vote-a-rama,” Senators proposed a slew of amendments before voting for or against the budget proposal. Among those proposed amendments, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — both hopeful Republican presidential nominees — took shots at foreign aid, with Paul proposing a staggering cut of $42 billion over two years.

Paul’s amendment was defeated by a huge margin — 96-4 — while Rubio’s was defeated more narrowly, at 68-32.

“Two years ago, Paul received 26 votes in support of cutting foreign assistance,” said Mark Lotwis, Vice President for Policy and Government Relations at InterAction.

“It’s imperative that Senators are not locked in to supporting cuts to vital development and humanitarian response programming.”

Still, the foreign aid potshots are enough to raise anxiety ahead of the budget markup process, set to begin Wednesday, when Congress returns to session. As it stands, an evenly reconciled international affairs budget would amount to about $45.5 billion, 23 percent lower than funding levels in 2009, according to a report compiled by Kate Eltrich, a partner at Sixkiller Consulting. Aid professionals worry further cuts could endanger sectors of foreign aid that are still strained by the effects of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

Global health research and development is one area of concern. Funding took a huge hit during sequestration, and the new budget proposals don’t offer much relief, Erin Will Morton, director of the Global Health Technologies Coalition, told Devex.

Aside from the $5.4 billion in emergency Ebola funding, Will Morton said, “investment looks to stay largely stagnant for R&D activities across the government.”

Will Morton explained that the final budget negotiations — or another budget impasse later this year — could result in even more cuts to the sector.

In the short term, the House and Senate budget committees continue to conference budget proposals over the April recess, hoping to pass a final conference report before May.

Congress is moving uncharacteristically fast on the budget this year, driven by a desire to use a tool called reconciliation, which would allow it to pass new tax legislation over the summer. The rush means that the markups for the State and Foreign Operations budget — which is usually among the last markups, and which often inflames tensions in Congress — could go to subcommittee as soon as the first week of May.

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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.