WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders pushed back strongly against the Trump administration’s freeze of foreign aid funds and called on the administration not to submit a “rescission” package.
Earlier this week, the White House Office of Management and Budget told the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department to freeze money in more than a dozen accounts and report back on how much funding had not yet been committed. The request was seen as laying the groundwork for a possible rescission attempt that could prevent those agencies from spending about $4 billion in funds that Congress had appropriated.
“It would be inappropriate for any administration, under any circumstance, to attempt to override Congress’s most fundamental power.”— Letter from congressional leaders
In a rare show of bipartisan and bicameral support, the chairmen and ranking opposition members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to the administration urging it to make the funds that have been paused available for obligation.
“We write to express our deep concern regarding reports that for the second year in a row, the Administration has paused end of the fiscal year obligations and may be preparing a rescission package that would cancel over $4 billion in funding vital for American foreign policy,” the letter said. “Slashing crucial diplomacy and development programming would be detrimental to our national security while also undermining Congress’s intended use for these funds.”
The letter goes on to outline the constitutional and legal authority granted to Congress to make budget decisions and cites a December 2018 opinion by the Government Accountability Office that found that the administration cannot submit rescission requests shortly before the funding is due to expire at the end of a fiscal year.
“Slashing crucial diplomacy and development programming would be detrimental to our national security while also undermining Congress’s intended use for these funds.”— Letter from congressional leaders
“It would be inappropriate for any administration, under any circumstance, to attempt to override Congress’s most fundamental power. Such action would be precedent-setting and a direct affront to the separation of powers principle upon which our nation was built,” the letter said. “As leaders of the Congressional Committees with oversight responsibility for U.S. foreign policy and the appropriate resourcing and execution of development and diplomacy programs, we would be compelled to use all the tools at our disposal to respond appropriately, should such action be taken.”
The letter, signed by Republican Sen. James Risch, Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez, Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel, and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, concluded by urging the administration not to submit a new rescission package to Congress, asked for assurances that the administration wouldn’t do so, and requested a timely response.
Others have spoken out against the possible rescission attempt as well. Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement Thursday she was “deeply concerned by the administration’s latest ploy to withhold foreign assistance.”
The statement said that the directive issued by OMB Deputy Director Michael Duffey may be “an illegal impoundment” and that the president “cannot withhold funds in anticipation of a rescissions package.”
“This administration seems determined to ignore the will of Congress and undermine American leadership. I will do everything in my power to stop this illegitimate action taken by the administration,” Lowey said in the statement.
For the second summer in a row, the Trump administration appears poised to use a relatively obscure budget process known as rescission to take back U.S. development funding that lawmakers have already approved.
If the administration submits a rescission proposal, it starts a 45-day freeze on the funding in the request, during which time Congress can review the request, accept it, reject it, or take no action. If the letter is any indication, it seems unlikely the foreign aid authorizing committees would support such a request.
However, Congress is in recess until Sept. 9, so it could prove difficult to take action and free up the funds before they expire at the end of the fiscal year.
A top State Department official said that State and USAID are complying with OMB’s request and working to gather the requested information.
“In a short time … we will provide OMB all the information they want and then people will make decisions based upon that and we are happy to execute any decisions that are made,” Jim Richardson, director of the office of foreign assistance at the State Department, told Devex in an interview. “We have a legal obligation to spend the resources appropriated to us that aren’t in rescission. We will comply with the law and we will do what people ask us to do.”
The systems at the State Department have gotten a lot better in the past few years, which will allow it to quickly pull the necessary information, he said.