Former Ambassador Mark Green, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday for his nomination hearing.
Green received a warm welcome from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who repeatedly praised his qualifications, bipartisan outlook, and long track record of development leadership. In a rare move, House Speaker Paul Ryan ventured to the U.S. Senate chamber to offer introductory remarks on behalf of Green, whom he called, “a good, close, old friend” and the agency he’s set to lead, “a very important agency at a very important time.”
Lawmakers questioned Green about his views on U.S. global development policy, often contrasting the nominee’s career working in and with developing countries to the Trump administration’s proposal to slash foreign aid spending. Lawmakers, many of whom referred to personal meetings they’d already had with Green, appeared to view his nomination as a welcome signal that they will enjoy a close working relationship with USAID, and that the agency will be led by an administrator who intends to advocate on its behalf within the administration.
Having secured the committee’s support, Green’s nomination will now proceed to the full Senate for a vote.
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“You have accepted a position during a very challenging moment,” Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, told Green.
Cardin pointed to the proliferation of conflicts, humanitarian crises and fragile regions around the world, calling the USAID administrator “one of the most important national security posts that we have in America.” He also referred to some “self-inflicted challenges,” incurred by the Trump administration through its budget proposal, which would see foreign affairs spending reduced by one-third and dozens of USAID missions shut down.
“Assure us that you’re going to be an effective voice within the Trump administration as it relates to these key decisions that are being made, recognizing that development assistance is critical to our national security,” Cardin said. “How do you weigh in effectively within the Trump administration to carry out that commitment?”
Asked directly whether he would advocate for funding U.S. development programs inside the White House, Green said that he would. In his testimony, the former ambassador to Tanzania said: “To be very clear, USAID will not walk away from our commitment to humanitarian assistance, and we will always stand with people everywhere when disaster strikes.”
Green assured the committee that in his conversations with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who defended the president’s budget request earlier in the week — Tillerson made clear that none of his views on restructuring USAID and the State Department, including controversial ideas about merging the two, are settled.
“The secretary has assured me he has an open mind,” Green said. Asked for his personal opinion on the subject, he said, “I believe that the State Department and USAID need to be closely aligned, but I believe they have different cultures.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, asked Green whether he believes USAID’s budget is too restricted by earmarks that require the agency to spend money on certain specific things, thereby reducing the administrator’s ability to respond to new issues or direct money to key priorities.
Green said he had been advised not to raise the issue of earmarks, which can be a sensitive one between the executive and legislative branches, but responded that inflexible funding was a problem worth tackling. Green said he has seen numbers suggesting that only 7 percent of USAID’s 2017 fiscal year budget is flexible.
“Obviously that limits the ability of USAID to adjust to changing circumstances,” he said.
One global development observer pointed out that one unexpected byproduct of Trump’s presidency is that a window for significant U.S. aid reform seems to have opened for the first time in a long time. While Congress appears highly unlikely to enact the bulk of Trump’s suggested budget cuts, the appropriations — and now confirmation — process has elevated the profile of U.S. development policy and drawn out congressional leaders to state their views and, potentially, take action.
“This Congress may have best opportunity for serious foreign aid reform in years. This is … unexpected. But welcome,” wrote Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, on Twitter.
Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Mark Green, a former ambassador and president of the International Republican Institute, to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Senators Todd Young and Jeanne Shaheen, an Ohio Republican and a New Hampshire Democrat, have joined forces to write a bill requiring a new national development strategy, which would align development efforts with the U.S. national security strategy. The two senators are part of a task force that plans to release recommendations for U.S. development reform in July. Green promised to consult with them.
In his opening remarks committee chair Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, urged Green to support food aid reform, which would grant more flexibility to buy food commodities overseas, instead of shipping them from the United States.
"If we could modernize the program with increased flexibility in food aid delivery, while still maintaining a significant role for the U.S. farmer who cares deeply about people in need, we could feed 5 to 8 million more people a day with the exact same funding,” Corker said.
In his testimony to four different committees this week, Tillerson repeatedly said that U.S. foreign affairs needed to be reformed because of a failure of diplomacy and development agencies to adapt to the end of the Cold War. Green described things differently, saying that U.S. development agencies should better reflect the fact that private investment in developing countries now far outweighs official development assistance.
“If confirmed, and working with you, I will pursue ideas for reforming USAID’s offices and procedures, rethinking its structure and changing the way it engages with the many players in the development space to better tap into new financial flows, catalyze mutually beneficial investment and remove unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles to private sector participation,” Green said.
It remains to be seen how much leeway the White House and State Department will grant Green to implement his vision — Tillerson is currently leading a comprehensive review to gather feedback from staff and consider potential departmental redesign options. The picture that emerged from Green’s first hearing though, was of a nominee with broad support from an engaged and interested congress that seems to expect him to forge an independent path for U.S. development programs.