House Foreign Affairs committee seeks input on budget cuts

A delivery of humanitarian supplies in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by: U.S. State Department

The House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday indicated that the majority of members oppose President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts and believe that, while reforms are needed, U.S. foreign assistance should not be slashed.

During the hearing, only one member of Congress came out vocally in support of the proposed 28 percent budget cuts: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, cheered Trump’s proposal.

“Somebody finally got the message from the American people that we’re not going to put up with the corruption, with the financing of our enemies, that we see over and over again when we look at our foreign aid budget,” he said, suggesting that foreign aid spending has been wasted or has gone to countries that oppose the U.S.

Rohrabacher suggested focusing U.S. support on humanitarian relief in emergency situations and not on imposing U.S. mores or morals on other countries. Humanitarian relief seems to have widespread bipartisan support, even among aid skeptics.

While several other members questioned the efficacy of certain investments or the way they are made, they mostly spoke in favor of maintaining a robust foreign affairs budget as an instrument of national security.

The recurring tropes of foreign aid’s importance for national security and the need for investing in all three tools — development, diplomacy and defense — of American foreign policy were underscored both by those testifying and by several members of Congress, including those who had served in the armed forces.

One of them, Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said that while many agree that money is well spent on diplomacy rather than bullets, it is important to have a conversation about how those funds can be most effective. Foreign aid must promote and be aligned with national security interests, something that did not always happen during the Obama administration, he said.

Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican from Ohio, turned to the panel of witnesses testifying to ask them to identify where there is waste at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, and what cuts or reductions they might suggest could be done “without jeopardizing U.S. security or posture around the world.”

Those witnesses were Stephen Krasner, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and Nicholas Burns, professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former under secretary for political affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Burns said that reform and ongoing cuts need to be part of the culture at the State Department and that the agency is “top heavy.” The number of undersecretaries and envoys could be reduced, he said, with power transferring to assistant secretaries. Further, he criticized an excessive number of political appointees and said that career diplomats should be given more opportunities to work to positions of authority.

It is unlikely that the State Department will have two deputy secretaries in this administration, Pletka said, agreeing that the agency needs to be in a constant process of reforms. Aid to Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and others should be scrutinized. There need to be tough questions asked about whether those programs were designed effectively, she said.

Identifying cuts should not only focus on potential examples of waste but also on policy — identifying a clear vision and ensuring that foreign policy and spending follow that course, Krasner said. U.S. foreign aid policy should be guided by three principles, he suggested: ensuring better security, improving health, and modest economic growth.

Krasner said that there is “no natural progression from poverty to prosperity” but cautioned that the U.S. “ignore[s] failed states at our peril.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, who donned a Save the Children tie for the hearing, asked a series of questions aimed at determining the impacts of the proposed cuts, including the U.S. ceding power to other countries, diplomacy efforts and the role of the United Nations.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, also raised the issue of the U.N., saying that while it needs reform “we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater” and that the organization can be a “force multiplier.”

He asked the panel about how the proposed cuts would impact efforts to tackle ISIS and other extremist groups.

It is critical to invest in the future of the Middle East so that millions of refugees have places to return to, Pletka said. The U.S. must engage in nation building so that they have a future to look to and don’t become the next Al Shabab or Boko Haram. It is possible to make savings but the cuts are too much, she said. This should be seen as an opportunity to look at “rational and reasonable reforms.”

Asking how the cuts would impact a single region or issue was a familiar refrain. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, asked about future pandemic preparedness.

In the Ebola response, one of the factors of success was that the U.S. military worked with the State Department, Burns said, making the most of the nexus between defense, state and aid.

“The [proposed] budget breaks the vital link that Republicans and Democrats have seen as essential — that defense, diplomacy and development have to exist together,” he said.

There were several questions about Colombia and Central America and the damage that proposed cuts would have on efforts to implement the peace plan in the former and improve economic and safety conditions in the latter. Krasner and Burns both testified that continued investment is necessary to ensure that U.S. work on peace in Colombia is carried through and to help stem migration flows from Central America by improving livelihoods.

There were other questions about how aid might be focused. Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, asked whether the U.S. should be working in fewer countries or sectors.

Krasner said a better solution than focusing on fewer countries would be to find programs that have incentives that are compatible with what recipients want, and with trade.

Several members of Congress referenced the slew of development-related agencies slated for elimination in the budget, including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and the U.S. African Development Foundation. They asked about how those particular cuts serve U.S. objectives and what the committee should consider as it looks at those recommendations.

Those testifying spoke in favor of several of the organizations, particularly OPIC. Burns said that he didn’t see a clear strategy in the proposals to cut those institutions. Pletka added that the question to consider is not how much to cut, but what you want to achieve, and Krasner urged a look at metrics and measurement systems.

Rep. Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, said “there is very little disagreement this cut doesn’t make sense,” but asked the witnesses for their best suggestions to save money in this part of the budget, given that in every large organization there is waste, fraud and abuse.

Burns, who said he was biased as a career foreign service officer, said that cutting State essentially translates to cutting personnel in an already lean agency, and suggested cuts should come from aid. The U.S. should be more selective in the countries it works in and should look at making some cuts to U.N. funding, he said.

Pletka echoed his call for some U.N. cuts, particularly to peacekeeping, where she said the U.S. should use its leverage to close down longstanding ongoing missions that are not effective.

Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California, and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has rejected the steep cuts, closed the hearing by saying that Congress needs to be fully engaged and that he looks forward to working with others to make sure that any reductions are efficient, effective and do not have unintended consequences.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.