Several hearings on foreign aid this week could offer the development community a hint of where members of Congress stand vis-a-vis the United States President Donald Trump administration’s proposed cuts to aid spending.
Aid watchers are particularly interested in how Republican members of Congress question Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he takes the stand in the coming days. The president’s “skinny” budget has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle for its proposed drastic reduction to the aid budget. But it’s still unclear whether, where and how much opposition there is in the Republican party to slashing foreign assistance.
The administration’s proposals align with an isolationist camp in the party, that advocates policies articulated by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. However, other camps of Republicans, such as internationalists and defense hawks, have traditionally been advocates of aid. One of those backers, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations.
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“I think we’ve been having a low grade Republican civil war for a while” between more isolationist and internationally-minded members, a former congressional staffer who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told Devex. “It’s the isolationists that pose the big threat to foreign assistance.”
Any push from Congress to cut aid would dent a 15-year bipartisan consensus that has broadly supported foreign assistance. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both successfully pushed new aid-related legislation, with eight new bills signed in just the last two years. The recent resolution to fund the U.S. government through the end of the 2017 fiscal year also included an additional $900 million for famine relief.
Some analysts and former officials expect to see Congress broadly pitted against the administration in support of aid. Appropriators, used to working with a president on a budget, find themselves at odds with the recommendations; some 200 members of Congress have issued statements opposing parts of the budget. Even among isolationists, the staffer said, no strong champions have emerged for making cuts a priority in budget negotiations.
“There isn’t a single person I’ve talked to on Capitol Hill that sees this budget as anything relevant to move forward on Capitol Hill,” said Liz Schrayer, the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.
On aid particularly, this is the first time an administration has broadly opposed aid programs, which presents new challenges for appropriators, said Tony Fratto, a partner at public affairs consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies.
“It’s not been like this, where its Congress, in a bipartisan way, looking to support programs that the administration is not supporting,” said Fratto, who has previously worked at the White House and the U.S. Treasury Department. “That’s never happened before in this area.”
Foreign aid hasn’t traditionally be a polarizing topic within the Republican party, though members do hold varying views.
Some in the administration, and an unclear number of Congressional members, subscribe to a view of foreign policy articulated by The Heritage Foundation that sees aid as largely ineffective.
“I think there’s always been a lot of contention about foreign aid on both sides and among analysts about what are best ways to help people, the most effective policies,” said James Roberts, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Advocates of this view propose folding the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department and shifting to more flexible grants geared toward short- and medium-term political goals in national security and opening markets, “as opposed to long-term goals like solving poverty,” he said.
One Republican lobbyist told Devex that few members of Congress fully subscribe to Heritage’s views on the issue. Far more Republicans, even some who believe in limited government, support aid, but seek reforms for greater efficiency.
In the past, some aid critics have been turned to supporters, when they can learn more about how foreign assistance works, Fratto noted. In 2001, the Bush administration did not uniformly support aid. But supporters, including Fratto, worked to educate members of the administration and showcase results.
Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, offers another example of changed views. Having run on a platform that included cutting foreign aid, he changed his position after joining Congress and learning more about the programs in question. He now supports foreign aid with some reforms.
Defense hawks within the Republican party may form another pillar of support for foreign assistance. In now oft-quoted congressional testimony from several years ago, current Defense Secretary James Mattis said that foreign aid was essential to U.S. interests abroad. That testimony and a letter signed by about 120 retired generals and admirals lay out the case for aid as vital to national security.
Certain parts of the foreign assistance budget are likely to face more scrutiny in the coming weeks than others, which have broad-based support.
“I think that foreign assistance that is clearly linked to strategic goals will always find a home with some Republicans,” the former staffer said. Party members are also likely to back issues such as countering violent extremism, stabilization work or market-based aid programs like Power Africa. Efforts that promote domestic resource mobilization and build self-sufficiency are also likely winners for Republican support. The faith community within the party is equally likely to continue its longstanding backing for issues such as food aid, health and water.
Programs with a less clear-cut impact, or initiatives that national governments could undertake on their own, are likely to come under greater scrutiny. Here, the focus may be less on slashing funds than on making programs more effective and efficient.
Any broader restructuring of U.S. aid would almost certainly spark debate. Congress has already requested to be kept informed about any plans to move USAID under the State Department.
Roberts said he expects to see a number of concerns aired in committee. Among his primary questions for Congress is one about the viability “of continuing to have a 1950s era organization like USAID continue to exist.” He also questions whether the U.S. government is well suited to address “goals that span decades and generations … and need change in culture, values,” he said.
Many in development would welcome a discussion about modernizing aid and finding ways to improve it. Congress may look to programs including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, for examples of how data can inform programming.
“There are a lot of ill-informed views out there about development,” Fratto said, particularly about how recent reforms have placed a greater focus on measuring results and adapting when things aren’t working.
While members of the appropriating and authorizing committees are often familiar with programs, many members of Congress are not. Where and if champions emerge will go a long way to determining future foreign aid funding.