Top takeaways from Obama's 2017 budget request

U.S. President Barack Obama. What are the biggest winners and losers in Obama’s budget request for 2017? Photo by: Jetta Disco / U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The snow keeps falling, but the winter vacation from budget negotiations is over in Washington D.C. U.S. President Barack Obama signaled the start of another appropriations season for fiscal year 2017 with the release of the final budget request of his administration on Tuesday.

At the highest level, the budget request for international affairs looks pretty familiar and effectively flat, coming in at $54.1 billion overall. Of that amount, $22.7 billion sits in accounts fully or partially managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The top-line number includes $39.3 billion in base funding and $14.9 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding — a special account associated with the global war on terror.

Once again the foreign affairs budget’s reliance on OCO funds has some aid watchers nervous. What some call an overreliance on OCO money could leave ongoing U.S. assistance programs vulnerable. As the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition pointed out, OCO funding has grown from 9 to 28 percent of the foreign affairs budget over the last six years.

This year’s base appropriation request — the non-OCO portion — is $430 million less than the enacted amount for 2016 and the lowest it has been since 2008. OCO funding is supposed to disappear over time as military engagements draw down. With a decreasing base appropriation, some observers worry the administration is not aligning long-term programs with long-term funding streams.

Digging deeper into those top-line numbers reveals a more complex budgetary landscape, with some clear winners and losers. Here are some of the biggest takeaways.

Malaria gets the SOTU bump

President Obama made good on his State of the Union commitment to ask Congress for money to bring about the end of malaria with a 30 percent increase over last year’s level. The budget request includes $71 million additional dollars for the President’s Malaria Initiative, begun under former President George W. Bush, and proposes to repurpose an additional $129 million left over from the emergency Ebola appropriation.

It remains to be seen how Congress will react to the administration’s overestimate of funding required to respond to the Ebola virus outbreak, but some malaria champions were understandably enthusiastic about the plus-up.

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Obama puts the ‘N’ in NTDs

There were less favorable reviews of cuts to programs supporting vulnerable children, neglected tropical diseases and tuberculosis. The $191 million requested for TB represents a nearly 20 percent decrease from 2016 enacted funding. Others lamented the president’s apparent neglect for — ahem — neglected tropical diseases.

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Funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief remained flat at $4.3 billion, as did money to contribute to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria at $1.35 billion.

Building on Paris momentum

As expected, climate change emerged as a strengthened priority in this budget request, with $750 million requested for contributions to the Green Climate Fund and additional funding to support programs through the Global Climate Change Initiative. The $750 million contribution to the GCF would move the U.S. government further towards its pledge of $3 billion over four years.

It’s worth pointing out though — as Karen Orenstein, senior international policy analyst at Friends of the Earth did in an email to Devex — that success for the “scale up funding over time plan” puts a lot of faith in whomever is the next U.S. president to keep up that trend.

Climate advocates also see reason to cheer for the $291 million requested for USAID’s role in Power Africa. According to Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam America, a large portion of those funds should support renewable energy investments.

Officials downplay the hit to humanitarian funds

One of the biggest cuts in the foreign affairs budget is to humanitarian programs, which saw a decrease from $7.6 billion in 2016 to $6.2 billion in the president’s request, a drop close to 20 percent. Many of the early reactions were of alarm, considering the unprecedented number of people currently displaced and seeking humanitarian assistance — and the general expectation that such crises will continue to happen.

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In explaining the significantly lower request, U.S. officials have said that the large appropriation and remaining funds for fiscal year 2016 combined with the president’s request for 2017 will together provide enough funding for the U.S. to accomplish its humanitarian goals.

“It’s not an uncommon phenomenon in this space … What’s really important, and the way the administration has approached this, is we’re not going to be in a situation year after year after year to continue to lead the world in this space. We have to bring other partners into this,” said Heather Higginbottom, U.S. deputy secretary of state for management and resources.

Now that the budget process moves to Capitol Hill, where appropriations subcommittees will hash out their funding bills, some analysts aren’t so optimistic about the bigger picture.

The omnibus budget agreement brokered at the end of last year requires that non-defense discretionary spending not increase. According to Kate Eltrich, partner at Sixkiller Consulting, there will be pressure to put more money into high-priority domestic budget items, like veteran health care, and that spending will have to come from somewhere.

Additionally, Eltrich explained, Republicans’ plan to balance the budget in 10 years — combined with recent tax cuts that have grown the federal deficit — means they will have to cut into nondefense spending at some point soon.

Subcommittees won’t start approving bills for another few months, and, as with recent budget negotiations, the process will surely drag on until — or past — the Sept. 30 deadline.

What do you see in the president’s budget request that has you hopeful, concerned, or perplexed? Let us know in the comments section below.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    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.