Democratic lawmakers slam White House budget office for obstructing aid funds

John Yarmuth, chair of the House Committee on the Budget, and Nita Lowey, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations. Photo by: Festival of Faiths and Monika Flueckiger / WEF

WASHINGTON — Two Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives sent a strongly-worded letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget Wednesday outlining a litany of concerns related to what they consider an abuse of the budget office’s authority, and a pattern of interference in State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development spending.

“We write to express our deep concerns about the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) increasingly dubious and politicized applications of budget law, as well as the role they have played in impeding other agencies’ ability to use their enacted appropriations,” wrote Reps. John Yarmuth, chair of the House Committee on the Budget, and Nita Lowey, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations.

They addressed the letter, which Devex obtained, to Mick Mulvaney, who was in charge of OMB until President Donald Trump appointed him acting chief of staff, and Russell Vought, OMB’s acting director.

“OMB’s actions have already damaged important government programs, diminished our country’s security and standing abroad, and if continued, threaten to permanently undermine fundamental checks and balances in our constitutional republic,” the lawmakers wrote.

For two successive years, OMB has pursued plans to use a budget process known as “rescission” to pull back U.S. foreign aid funds that were already appropriated by Congress — only to abandon those plans at the last minute in both cases.

This year, OMB has also saddled the State Department and USAID with funding restrictions, limiting the amount they can spend on a daily or weekly basis. The two lawmakers suggested these funding restrictions were a result of OMB’s “intransigence” and represent an attempt “to accomplish through the apportionment process what it had hoped to accomplish with a rescissions proposal.”

While the U.S. Congress has repeatedly pushed back, mostly successfully, on the White House’s budget maneuvers, the letter signals a significant escalation of Democrats’ efforts to call out and attempt to curtail what they consider an inappropriate — possibly illegal — attempt by OMB to exert “executive control or influence over agency functions.”

In addition to accusing the budget office of undermining humanitarian programs, efforts to counter violent extremism, and funding related to the Indo-Pacific and Power Africa, the lawmakers charged that, “OMB has continued to push this unlawful agenda and perniciously broadened its sights to target funding provided by the Congress to the Department of Defense to counter Russian aggression.”

They described funding withheld from the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and cited estimates indicating that “at least tens of millions — and potentially over one hundred million [dollars] — in funds will expire as a result of OMB’s attempts to stifle the Department of Defense’s access to this lawfully provided funding.”

The committees that appropriate funding for U.S. foreign affairs programs have, for years, fashioned themselves as rare centers of relative bipartisan agreement — and often tout their commitment to shield many of these programs from political battles.

“All the funding for the programs and policies mentioned above was negotiated in good faith between, and subsequently approved by, bipartisan majorities in the Congress, and was signed into law by President Trump,” the lawmakers wrote.

They closed their letter with a pledge to ramp up oversight of OMB’s actions and to “respond forcefully to Executive Branch actions that seek to override the Congress’ most fundamental constitutional power.”

“We are actively pursuing a range of options to ensure that OMB is held accountable for any improper apportionment actions and to ensure that the Congress remains at the center of funding decisions,” they wrote.

The Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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.