Development bills in US Congress face steep hurdles

The dome of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Photo by: ttarasiuk / CC BY

Several bills put before the United States Congress since the beginning of the year could impact aid workers and development organizations — if they get enough political support to be enacted into law.

While individual foreign aid bills aren’t likely to get much attention in the early days of an administration more focused on reforming its domestic health care system, each bill offers a snapshot into the issues facing the administration, the priorities of its sponsor, or merely a nod to a representative’s constituents.

The Haitian Educational Empowerment Act of 2017, sponsored by Democrat Alcee Hastings, would establish a scholarship program for Haitian undergraduate students through the U.S. State Department. Hastings, whose Florida district includes West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, major cities with large populations of Haitians and Haitian Americans, put the act forward on the first day of this Congress, along with 15 other bills.

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The law would specifically benefit students who were impacted by the 2010 earthquake or by Hurricane Matthew, which struck Haiti in October 2016. The International Organization for Migration estimated that 2.1 million people were affected by the hurricane. Students who were enrolled full time in a Haitian university or a university in the U.S. at the time of the quake or the hurricane would be eligible for one year’s tuition, with an option to renew for a second year. Students who received the scholarship and completed their education as a result would be required to return to Haiti. The bill has five co-sponsors, including Rep. Nita Lowey and Rep. Yvette Clarke, both Democrats from New York. Clarke recently sponsored the Haiti Emergency Relief Act of 2017, which would grant temporary protected status to Haitian nationals living in the United States.

Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, first introduced the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act in 2014 when the country was in the beginnings of its civil war, and again in 2015. The bill did not advance in either session. Now, with millions affected by a widespread famine, and shortly after the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan issued a report claiming the country is “on the verge of genocide,” Jackson Lee has reintroduced the bill under the Trump administration.

The bill requires “activities carried out by the United States in South Sudan relating to governance, post-conflict reconstruction and development, police and military training, and refugee relief and assistance support the human rights of women and their full political, social, and economic participation.”

If passed, the bill would require that South Sudanese women’s organizations be included in U.S. policies relevant to the governance of South Sudan and that funding promote “the inclusion of a significant number of women in the National Legislature and future legislative bodies to ensure that women’s full range of human rights are included and upheld in any constitution or legal structures of South Sudan.” The bill has zero co-sponsors.

One of Trump’s first acts as president was to sign an executive order reviving the “global gag rule,” a ban on U.S. funds to international aid organizations that provide abortions or information about abortion as a family-planning option, regardless of whether those organizations are in countries where abortion is legal. For aid providers, the restriction creates an environment in which they either need to flout the law by providing information to patients in need — and thus risk their funding for other vital programs — or not provide the information, which can be critical to a patient’s health. A bill put forward by Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Lowey, called the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) Act, would permanently repeal the policy. The bill has 140 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

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“We can’t put ‘America first’ by marginalizing women around the world,” Lowry said in a statement announcing the bill. “Reinstatement of the dangerous and arbitrary Global Gag Rule is an especially outrageous assault on women. It has not decreased the rate of abortions and unwanted pregnancies under previous Republican Administrations ... In fact, its severe limits on access to family planning services will dramatically erode progress on maternal and child health, and the policy will weaken the effectiveness of our foreign assistance by making ineligible some of the most capable and effective international partners.”

Ann Vaughn, director of policy and advocacy for Mercy Corps, carefully tracks legislation that could impact the development community. When asked about these bills, and their potential repercussions for development groups, Vaughn said: “None of those bills are a leadership priority. We can barely get appropriations bills through the House and the Senate right now.” She continued, “If you can’t even fund the government, bills that are related to anything other than the Affordable Care Act, aren’t moving.”

Although the HER Act has many sponsors, it’s a partisan effort. The bills floated by Hastings and Jackson Lee, with its few sponsors and narrow focus, aren’t likely to get much attention, even from those it could potentially impact. They send a message, however, to constituents, allies or even foes, that the issue is going to be raised in Congress. But for NGOs working in the field, Vaughn suggests waiting to see if the bill will advance before getting too excited.

“If they do anything, these sort of messaging bills provide an opportunity to reach out to the sponsor, to say, hey, I appreciate your interest, and before this goes to a mark-up, I hope you’ll talk to us so we can make sure you’re not impacting the people on the ground that this would affect,” Vaughn said.

In general, a bill is more likely to advance if it has a large number of bipartisan sponsors, or if the sponsor is a senior member of the leadership, or the head of a committee, and they’ve said publicly that it will be their key legislative priority for that session.

With so few foreign aid bills passing Congress in any given year, the greater indicator of how funds and focus will be directed abroad will come with the expiration of the continuing resolution that extended funding for war efforts and disaster relief, among other programs, at the end of April. Congress will need to pass a new appropriations bill to determine how funds will be allocated going forward.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

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About the author

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    Molly McCluskey

    Molly McCluskey is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera English, U.S. News & World Report, Middle East Eye, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and an array of national and international publications. She has written extensively on global economic issues and their impacts on individuals, institutions and nations. In 2014, Molly was selected for the prestigious International Women’s Media Foundation’s Democratic Republic of the Congo reporting fellowship, and in 2016 won the McGraw Fellowship for Business Reporting. She recently completed her third term as a member of the Board of Governors of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. She divides her time between the U.S. and Europe.