U.S. Rep. Kay Granger. Photo by: House GOP / CC BY-NC

Kay Granger is worried about the black rhinoceros.

“I can’t even imagine that in my time in Congress I could see that there are no black rhinos, no elephants in the wild,” the Republican representative from Texas — and power broker on U.S. foreign affairs — told Devex in an exclusive interview.

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep that from happening,” she said.

Granger is one of a handful of lawmakers with the power to withhold or allow, plus-up or trim down the U.S. government’s foreign aid programs around the world — to Egypt and Jordan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Burma or Honduras. When it comes to trade-offs between funding food security or HIV treatments, the Millennium Challenge Corp. or UNICEF, Granger’s gavel wields tremendous influence.

She counts Central American first ladies and Middle Eastern kings among her friends; Egypt’s opposition leaders asked her to delay their own national election; and both the Democratic and Republican parties tried to recruit her to run for Congress.

And as a critical chapter in U.S. global development cooperation unfolds in 2015, the former Fort Worth mayor’s voice — and vote — as chair of the House appropriations subcommittee for state and foreign operations holds more weight now than ever.

For Granger, the road leading from Texas to international development — and wildlife conservation — has unwound in unexpected ways. While her ascendance to a position of such prominence in U.S. foreign aid might seem like an accident, it ultimately comes down to one thing: connecting the dots.

And that’s why she’s particularly worried about rhinos and elephants.

“When you connect the dots … yes, they’re wiping out the elephants. They’re wiping out the elephants to take the tusks … and then that’s funding the terrorism that we fear every day,” she said.

Granger’s talent for drawing connections — between wildlife and terrorism, or global health and regional peace — has helped broaden support for U.S. aid programs. It has also positioned her at the center of a fundamental transformation in the relationship between development and U.S. national security.

Reading between the lines

Granger’s power operates between the lines of a congressional appropriations bill’s cryptic legalese, where opportunities to pick winners and losers, to demand more accountability, to counterbalance political opposition and sidestep bureaucratic red tape actually exist — but only if you know where to find them.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, Granger’s Democratic counterpart on the Senate’s appropriations subcommittee for state and foreign operations, described her as “a pragmatist who always does her homework.”

The representative’s close reading of spending bills — and her willingness to dig into the follow-on implications of a budget line — set her apart, according to peers and colleagues.

“The bills we have produced during her tenure as chairwoman have her stamp squarely on them. I think it is a legacy of which she can be proud, and a legacy that has reflected well on Congress as a whole,” Leahy wrote to Devex.

A former staffer described instances where Granger’s mastery of “the delicate balancing act” between the Senate and the House and her understanding of how organizations actually use their money have allowed her to respond nimbly with funding solutions that would otherwise seem impossible.

When Central American migrants amassed at the U.S.-Mexico border last summer — prompting Speaker of the House John Boehner to create a working group on the “national security and humanitarian crisis” with Granger at its helm — the Texas representative knew enough about organizations working in the region to circumvent some of the conditions that hamstrung USAID.

Granger was able to include a modest increase in funding to the International Justice Mission. She knew the IJM had an effective implementing presence in Guatemala City, the former staffer said. That allowed the congresswoman to fund development programs to address the root causes of migration, without having to work through lengthy grant-making or contracting channels.

“She’s not cutting checks directly to the implementers, but she can help guide the money to the places where it can be best delivered,” the former staffer said.

By many accounts, Granger is a “hands-on” subcommittee leader who places a high premium on her own ability to justify the presence of any particular line item in the appropriations bill.

And she has some concerns.

Checks and balances

“USAID is huge. It’s so big now that [Congress] can’t do the oversight we need to do,” Granger told Devex.

The representative is “becoming more and more uncomfortable” with the idea of simply funding a country for the sake of continuity. She wants aid agencies to ask themselves: “What are the problems that we’re trying to solve? What’s keeping this from happening in this part of the world?”

“I think there’s a better way to organize it, so that [Congress] can more closely watch, and help and explain,” she told Devex. Granger acknowledged that her message would likely “send shivers” throughout the development community.

“That has been the ongoing balancing act,” Granger’s former staffer told Devex. The staffer described the challenge of “writing a bill that’s dynamic enough ... to give the State Department flexibility to be responsive,” and yet also ensures U.S. assistance doesn’t amount to a blank check to foreign governments — or to the White House.

The Arab Spring events brought that “balancing act” into stark relief.

“When Kay came on as ranking member … Tunisia fell, and then Libya, and then there were uprisings in Morocco and Bahrain,” Matthew Leffingwell, Granger’s former chief of staff, told Devex.

In the midst of the turmoil, Granger fought against a common perception among some of her colleagues on Capitol Hill that U.S. foreign assistance goes completely ungoverned once it’s released from the U.S. Treasury.

Granger remembers watching Egypt’s young people gather in Tahrir Square to demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. At the same time she was writing an appropriations bill and trying to figure out what U.S. assistance should look like under such an altered reality in the region.

“Bam! Mubarak’s gone and the whole world’s changed,” she said.

Granger told Devex she was approached by leaders of the opposition, who asked her, “Would you use your influence to delay the [Egyptian presidential] elections?”

While the congresswoman’s mandate did not extend quite that far, it did extend to shaping U.S. funding to the country. She turned her attention to crafting appropriations language that would allow the U.S. government to fund Egypt, but carefully, “so if everything goes sour, we can pull this back,” she said.

Granger credits that episode with opening some lawmakers’ minds to the role of congressional oversight in U.S. foreign assistance. Granger was able to use the moment, as questions of foreign assistance appropriations in the midst of political turmoil were on the world stage, to highlight the conditions that government can place on foreign funding.

“It turned a lot, a lot of opinions on what we were doing,” she said.

The fog of war

A lawmaker whose Texas district hosts the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter Textron, Granger’s intention was to be a player on U.S. defense policy, and she has been. In only her second term, Granger became the first woman in U.S. history to sit on the defense appropriations subcommittee, without realizing she was making history at the time.

In her first few years on that subcommittee, the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and quickly it became clear military interventions alone would not be successful. But in active war zones, the U.S. government’s “soft power” agencies — the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development — were relegated to the sidelines, while U.S. military personnel took over diplomatic and development functions.

From her seat on the subcommittee, Granger watched as the lines between the Defense Department’s and the State Department’s responsibilities grew increasingly blurred.

“We were all uncomfortable with it and wanted, as soon as possible, to put things back the way they should be,” she said. “It got really, really messy.”

Now in her ninth term, Granger’s time in office has coincided with a profound recalibration — concerning to some — of the relationship between U.S. national security, defense and global development. And she has been at the heart of that relationship.

When a huge class of freshman lawmakers entered Congress in 2011, Granger and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor arranged for them to travel to Israel, to connect the dots between assistance to a close national security ally and a range of other global development issues.

“I got to discuss for five days individually with those new members … what it means and why we participate in The Global Fund [to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria], why we participate in conservation and endangered species,” Granger said.

Granger’s ability to relate aspects of U.S. global development that she cares deeply about with core U.S. national security imperatives — like the bilateral relationship with Israel and threats in the Middle East — has been a hallmark of her leadership, and it’s earned her some powerful friends in the region.

“In the halls of Congress, Chairwoman Granger has helped spearhead U.S. aid to Jordan that has been and continues to be instrumental in helping my country through these challenging times,” King Abdullah II of Jordan wrote to Devex.

“She has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to Jordan as a key U.S. partner, ally and friend,” the king added, citing Granger’s sponsorship of a new bill, the U.S.-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act of 2015, which would channel $1 billion in assistance to the Middle Eastern ally.

In addition to describing Granger as a “champion for global health,” Rajiv Shah, former administrator of USAID, told Devex in a statement that the congresswoman deserves much credit for, “ensuring that USAID is playing a key role in protecting our national security.”

Shah’s comment speaks to an alliance forged between defense and development advocates, with Granger occupying a vital role at its center.

‘The whole world’s changed’

Senator Leahy worries that under the current Republican-controlled Congress, the justification of development programs based on their national security merits could become even more pronounced than it already is.

Leahy wrote to Devex that under the new Congress, we may see, “the balance shift in favor of so-called security programs, perhaps with fewer conditions on the use of funds by foreign military and police forces.”

“I think that would be a mistake and it would weaken Democratic support for the bill,” he added.

Bill Easterly, professor of economics at New York University, is another vocal critic of the “development as defense” mantra that has grown louder in recent years. “Let’s separate these two things,” Easterly told Devex, deriding USAID’s apparent relegation as a “tool in the war on terror.”

Granger’s consistent protection of a number of programs in the U.S. foreign aid base account — global health programs, in particular — sets her apart from lawmakers who only see value in foreign assistance programs that serve a national security mandate. She has emerged as a staunch supporter of U.S. efforts to combat malaria, and of programs like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

But for those programs that don’t have Granger’s immediate attention — and which don’t lend themselves as easily to the national security argument — the future is less certain.

“If we end up with a total budget like what is being proposed by the Republican majority, there will be deep cuts in critical programs,” Leahy wrote to Devex.

Granger strikes a reassuring tone: “I am confident that we can fund what’s important to fund in our bill.”

The question, of course, is what’s important?

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    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.