Q&A: Can lawmakers get to the bottom of White House aid funding delays?

Rep. Ami Bera, Democrat from California and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight. Photo by: Joel Kowsky / NASA / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers have expressed growing concern about President Donald Trump’s use of budget rules to restrict — or even retract — U.S. foreign aid funding.

For two consecutive years, the White House Office of Management and Budget has considered using a process known as “rescission” to reclaim U.S. foreign assistance funds that the Congress — which has constitutional authority to set the budget — already appropriated. In recent months, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have seen the OMB restrict the amount of money they can spend on a daily and weekly basis.

“In general, I do get the impression that this current president does not value aid and development as much as prior administrations that placed a value on it.”

— Rep. Ami Bera, Democrat from California and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight

Last week, two Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the White House budget office, charging that, “OMB’s actions have already damaged important government programs, diminished our country’s security and standing abroad.”

In the House of Representatives, where Democrats are in the majority, lawmakers have pledged to use what authority they have to examine the administration’s foreign aid funding policies and to determine whether there has been an intentional, political effort to disrupt funding for certain countries and programs.

One of those lawmakers is Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat from California who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight. Devex spoke with Bera about his plans to clarify why funding delays have occurred and what can be done about it.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length:

What are you planning in terms of oversight? What are the issues that you are particularly concerned about?

Certainly we've been concerned for a while. Obviously, when we were in the minority we saw the administration try to do rescissions around some of the Ebola funding and global health funding, and we were successfully able to fight that back. But from the get-go, since we've gotten in the majority, one of the things that I've had a concern about ... is the slowness by which authorized and appropriated funds are getting to where they need to go.

I want to keep an open mind — it could be bureaucratic processes that are in place, there's a healthy concern that the administration is slow-walking a lot of these funds. Then we've seen, most recently, the overt attempt of the administration to rescind billions of dollars of foreign aid funding. Again, I think in a bipartisan way, we were successfully able to fight that back.

In our responsibility as oversight, we do want to take a look at the processes and make sure that the programs and funding that Congress is authorizing and appropriating are getting to where they need to go. And it won't just be the oversight committee. I think [Rep.] Albio Sires on the Western Hemisphere [Civilian Security and Trade] Committee is going to look at the funding that was slated to go to the Northern Triangle countries. And again, the net impact of not distributing those funds, which we think is amplifying what's happening on the Southern border.

Is there a clear and deliberate plan of work that goes into doing this kind of oversight, where you divide responsibilities between different committees or is each member coming up with his or her own priorities?

Being chair of oversight, we've got broad jurisdiction over both State and USAID, and in this case, we think it is our responsibility to look at the processes that are in place. So, as Congress goes through the authorizing and appropriating process we're directing funds to go to certain regions and certain programs. If there are delays in those funds getting there. I think we want to take a deep dive into why those delays are getting there.

In the case of the Northern Triangle countries, I think it's totally appropriate that the Western Hemisphere subcommittee would take a look at their geographic area of jurisdiction. If my schedule allows I'm actually going to go to that hearing as well and try to weigh in from the oversight perspective. But some of this is holding the administration accountable.

And will it largely be through public hearings where you invite USAID officials to come and testify? What's the mode of oversight?

Certainly it's through public hearings. And again I don't want to presuppose, because there may be certain requirements that Congress has put in place that create bureaucratic slowdowns. If those are in place, how do we streamline that and again get funds out as quick as possible? So it's actually inviting those secretaries or assistant secretaries and individuals that are responsible for distributing those funds to better understand the processes, but then also if there's political motivations or political retribution, then we certainly want to call that out as well. You could do that publicly, but you could also do that in different ways — asking for information, etc.

Congress is going through a very deliberative process thinking about what programs and funds do we want to authorize and appropriate. Then for the president to say, “well, I don't like that country, so we're going to take their funds and ship them somewhere else,” really does run around the role of Congress.

How would you characterize the communication that you've had from the administration on some of these issues, whether it's the specific funding restrictions or the broader strategic priorities that this review might include?

I'd say that from the career folks and the folks that really do want to do the aid and development work around the world, they're trying to do their jobs. I think it's been less than cooperative from some of the political folks and political appointees. And again, when it comes to foreign policy, diplomacy, aid, and development, that historically is pretty bipartisan, which is why — I keep going back to the Northern Triangle example — when they tried to rescind the funds that we'd appropriated, you saw a pretty strong bipartisan pushback.

You said that you're willing to keep an open mind that the delays might be the result of some bureaucratic hurdles or processes. Have you gotten that impression from speaking with members of the administration? In other words, are they offering reasons for these delays?

Certainly we've gotten some feedback on some of the reporting requirements, etc., that we've put on both USAID and State's distribution of funds. Those are processes, and we can then think about, ‘okay, well how do we make the ease of getting those funds to the NGO or others that need them,’ and streamlining some of that. So there's been cooperation on that side.

But on other areas, to say, ‘okay, well, why is it that it's taking so long to get these funds out?’ There is some concern that, for countries that the president deems are not working hard on his priorities, it does seem like there's a slow-walking. In general, I do get the impression that this current president does not value aid and development as much as prior administrations that placed a value on it.

My understanding is that the funding restrictions have been pretty clearly put in place by the Office of Management and Budget. They're not coming from the State Department or USAID directly. Is that an office that you're able to get answers from?

Well, we'd certainly like to find out where the slowdown is occurring. Having served with Mick Mulvaney, it wouldn't surprise me that he is an individual who has never thought that highly of foreign aid and funding. And again in an oversight capacity, we certainly would like to know if there's a deliberate slowdown, where that deliberate slowdown is coming from, and I think that's part of doing our oversight, either using the hearing process or other mechanisms.

If there is a deliberate slowdown, what options does Congress have?

You've seen the appropriators — and certainly Chairwoman [Nita] Lowey — have written into the appropriations [bills] language that tries to readily direct these funds. But historically, prior to this administration, if we authorized and appropriated funds for specific countries or programs, in general, the presidents and the administrations would honor those requests. This, again, is not your run of the mill administration.

Is there anything that the broader U.S. development community can do, either to clarify what the situation is, or the consequences of funding delays might be, or just to interact in general with the oversight that you're trying to provide?

Well, certainly. I think it's important, one, for us to tell a clear story to the American public about why this aid and development matters. I've been trying to use the bully pulpit of the committee chairmanship to take a look back and just really demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy, aid, and development in the 70 years post-World War II — whether that's the Marshall Plan, whether that's helping the Republic of Korea go from one of the poorest countries in the world to a remarkably developed stable democracy that it is today, Japan, etc.

The reality is that if we're not there providing that guidance, aid and development with our allies, someone else is, and we may not like who that is. You'll hear the committee and members of Congress use the Chinese example and how they use development with a lot of strings attached.

Certainly we're working in U.S. interests, but we're working in the interests of helping develop these other countries. So we've got to explain to the public why U.S. presence, aid, and development is incredibly important, and how it helps the United States expand our area of influence, but also make the world more reflective of the values that the United States reflects. The folks that are out there every day on the front lines, both domestically but also abroad representing the United States, they're doing very difficult work, and we also want to make sure they know that they're appreciated.

Are there aspects of the U.S. foreign aid system that you think need to be reformed, or considered, or examined that are on your priority list?

Obviously, in a bipartisan way, we passed the BUILD Act in the last Congress, and we think the BUILD Act provides the U.S. aid and development community some tools that can be leveraged. We do want to take a look into how the BUILD Act is going to be funded, if it will be funded as Congress had intended to have it funded, but then also how the implementation of the BUILD Act is going. Obviously that's coming up in a month or so. That is an area that we've talked about scheduling a hearing as well.

About the author

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    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.