The US midterm election and its impact on foreign aid reform

U.S. President Barack Obama. Photo by: Pete Souza / White House

President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party suffered severe losses in congressional elections Nov. 2, but how the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives will affect U.S. foreign assistance remains to be seen as various reform proposals are being floated among politicians, think tanks and other opinion leaders.

Several proposals are already being shopped around Capitol Hill, and some may end up as part of the official GOP foreign policy agenda. But variations in the proposals suggest that the Republican Party, which has been in the minority in the House for four years, has yet to agree on a clear path forward.

One of the most extreme – and perhaps unrealistic – proposals is to altogether eliminate the U.S. Agency for International Development. It is part of a memo on potential budget cuts released by the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 115 House Republican dedicated to advancing a conservative economic and social agenda in the House. There is little evidence that the traditional foreign aid system employed by the agency is actually working, the RSC argues.

The committee, which is chaired by Tom Price (R-Ga.), claims that eliminating USAID will save U.S. taxpayers $1.39 billion annually.

A separate idea some conservative circles are entertaining is the elimination of the Trade and Development Agency and the Overseas Private Investment Corp., two agencies that have traditionally enjoyed Republican support. The proposal was put forward by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank.

Foreign aid supporters in wait-and-see mode

Supporters of a robust foreign aid budget appear to be largely holding their fire for now in an effort to gauge which reform ideas GOP leaders will coalesce around. They can expect with some confidence that the Senate, which remains in Democratic control, as well as the White House, with its veto power, would prevent the most drastic reforms a Republican-led House might pursue.

In the Senate, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry is expected to continue to chair the Foreign Relations Committee. Big changes, however are expected at the House, where the Republican Party was able to gain a sizable majority and will take over all committee chairmanships in January, giving the party control of the legislative process in the lower chamber.

As Devex reported, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl.) is poised to assume leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with current chairman Howard Berman, of California, becoming the ranking Democrat. Ros-Lehtinen has questioned the efficiency of foreign assistance and strongly argued for withholding U.S. contribution to multilateral organizations, including the United Nations.

>> Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: The Next House Foreign Affairs Committee Chief?

Berman’s foreign assistance reform bill may not also see the light of the day once Ros-Lehtinen replaces him as committee chairperson.

>> House Foreign Assistance Bill Puts USAID in Charge

But there are some “friends” of foreign policy in the ranks of the newly-elected Republicans, according to the Center for Global Development’s Sarah Jane Staats. These include Reps. Dave Camp of Michigan (likely to chair the House Ways and Means Committee) and Kevin Brady (poised to head the committee’s trade panel) as well as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who served as U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush.

“The new presidential policy directive on global development wisely says that development is about more than aid, and trade is a logical way to show that the United States is using its other policy tools for development,” Staats notes.

A memo by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition adds a few more names of newly elected Republicans who could provide “a narrow, but important window of opportunity” for the Obama administration’s foreign policy and a robust international affairs budget. Among these are Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, John Boozman of Arizona, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Dan Coats Indiana and Jerry Moran of Kansas.

What will ‘Tea Partiers’ do?

The roster of elected Republicans also includes a number of legislators backed by the Tea Party, a populist, conservative and libertarian political grassroots movement.

John Norris, a principal of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, suggest that the Obama administration may find some allies in these “Tea Partiers.”

“While foreign aid has often been demonized by conservatives, progressives and Tea Partiers alike should be able to find some common ground around recent efforts by the Obama administration to tighten and refine international development programs,” Norris writes in an opinion piece for Foreign Policy magazine.

Among the issues many Democrats and Tea Party supporters may be able to find common ground on are a military pullout of Afghanistan, a hard stance on Iran and a move toward a results-based foreign aid strategy, said Norris, who also heads the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

Meanwhile, Publish What You Fund, a U.K.-based transparency group, suggests that politicians of all stripes could find common ground advancing government transparency on aid and other issues.

About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.