WASHINGTON — The federal budget process has been a “disaster,” but don’t blame it all on President Donald Trump, Senator Ben Cardin told global development leaders in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.
The Maryland democrat — an ardent supporter of U.S. foreign affairs programs — said he would accept a modest cut to diplomacy and development accounts if it meant the U.S. Congress would stop failing to pass annual budgets and falling back on continuing resolutions. Cardin, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke to Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar as part of a Devex conversation series with policymakers in global development.
Cardin blamed the Trump administration for “damaging” rhetoric and a budget proposal that “would devastate the ability for us to have an effective development program.” He warned the administration is looking for ways to work around the policies and budget priorities that Congress is trying to set.
“We’ve seen America’s leadership at its best, but today it’s being challenged,” Cardin said. “It’s being challenged by President Trump. His ‘America first’ policy and the way that he uses his rhetoric has been very damaging to America’s credibility globally in regards to the use of development assistance and diplomacy.”
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Cardin took particular issue with Trump’s efforts — and the language he uses — to block refugees from the U.S., arguing that doing so undercuts America’s standing in conversations with other countries about keeping their own borders open to help manage the safe passage and resettlement of refugees.
Yet the senator aimed some of his harshest criticism at his colleagues on the Hill, for resorting to budget agreements that don’t reflect current priorities, and for their use of an emergency funding account to prop up longstanding development programs. The Overseas Contingency Operations account was meant to be a temporary funding stream for programs related to U.S. anti-terror operations, but in the absence of a straightforward budget process it has continued to fund a large portion of U.S. development spending.
“I think OCO funds are ridiculous,” Cardin said. “You need permanent certainty as to what these programs are going to look like. You don’t need the fact that we thought we were going to spend a lot more money in Afghanistan or Iraq, and therefore we have this money that we can shift around for the next couple years and then it’s gone. Where do you get the money after that? I think the OCO funding is a budget disaster, and it’s giving us a crutch. We need honest budgeting in Washington.”
Even if Congress does manage to return its budget to working order, there is still concern that the Trump administration might find ways to ignore it. Trump proposed massive cuts to U.S. foreign assistance spending, and Cardin reiterated a concern others have raised that the White House might try to not spend money, even if Congress allocates it.
“We’re not 100 percent sure — we are trying to look at the legalities of when Congress acts and the administration doesn’t carry out what we say they should carry out,” Cardin said. “Just because Congress is on your side doesn’t mean you’re going to have the administration implementing those policies. You’re not out of the woods.”
Cardin also addressed a persistent concern that the Trump administration might try to fold the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department, although later on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan appeared to put that rumor at rest. “We are not considering merging AID into the State Department,” Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Cardin, who spoke prior to Sullivan’s remarks, was more guarded about the security of USAID’s independence. He warned that while officials closely involved in U.S. foreign affairs have largely written off the idea of a merger, it may not be up to them to make the final decision.
“It seems like anyone who has any real knowledge of the need for USAID has been opposed to it being consumed by the State Department. However, we don’t know who’s going to make the decision,” Cardin said.
“We know that every senior advisor advised Trump against leaving the Paris climate accord, and yet he did make that announcement … Put it this way, if the president orders it to be done, it’s going to be done.”
Cardin lamented the Trump administration’s slow pace in nominating officials to key foreign affairs positions, but lauded the president’s pick to lead USAID. He called Administrator Mark Green, “one of the bright spots in the Trump administration,” and described the strategic tack he believes Green to be taking in service to an administration that has voiced its skepticism of development investments.
“He understands political realities,” Cardin said. “He’s working in an area where he has not been directly challenged by the White House, which is good, and I think that’s part of his strategy — to figure out that space where he doesn’t run into conflict.”
Cardin offered advice to those in the audience wondering how to deal with a particularly controversial area of conflict with this administration: the expansion of the so-called “Global Gag Rule,” which blocks funding to organizations that so much as provide counsel to patients about abortion options.
“Work in a quiet way with Republicans who understand what has happened here to try to get modifications by the president,” Cardin said.