US aid budget moves forward, but Democrats plan to fight cuts

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Abir Anware / CC BY

A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee approved a budget bill to fund U.S. foreign affairs programs Thursday, despite Democrats’ vows to fight back against the spending plan on a number of fronts.

The bill includes an overall $10 billion cut from 2017 foreign affairs spending levels and the expansion of the controversial “global gag rule,” which restricts funding for family planning. It maintains some of the accounts and programs that the Trump administration sought to cut, but it also takes a harsh swing at budget items Republicans are loath to support.

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No Democrats sought amendments to the bill during its markup in the subcommittee, but they vowed to push for changes when the full appropriations committee meets to consider passage of the budget proposal. The 2018 fiscal year begins Oct. 1, 2017.

“The excitement begins at full committee,” New York Rep. Nita Lowey, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, told Devex after the hearing.

U.S. foreign aid advocates have expressed mixed feelings about the House budget proposal. On one hand it rebukes the Trump administration’s far more dramatic proposals to cut U.S. foreign affairs spending, outlined in the White House budget request in May. That blueprint called for a one-third reduction in U.S. foreign aid spending, the elimination of multiple country missions, and major cuts to popular bipartisan programs, including PEPFAR — the global HIV initiative.

On the other hand, foreign affairs spending would still take a disproportionately large hit under the House budget proposal — and programs that lack bipartisan support would feel the brunt of those reductions. The budget allocates $47.4 billion to U.S. foreign affairs spending in 2018, down from roughly $57 billion enacted in 2017.

“Given the range of global threats from famines to North Korea to unrest in the Middle East, the deep and disproportionate cuts to America’s civilian forces proposed by the House would simply make our nation less safe. If it’s signed into law, we would wake up a few years from now — just like we did in the 1990s — and deeply regret the decisions we made today,” said Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, in a statement.

The House budget bill — much like President Donald Trump’s budget proposal — takes aim at family planning. The proposal calls for the expansion of the global gag rule, or the Mexico City Policy, to all global health funding. That would mean that roughly $8 billion in U.S. global health funding would be denied to any health organization that provides, or even informs about abortion for family planning.

“Expanding the global gag rule to all health programs is disastrous. So we’re going to have a lot of work to do in full committee,” Lowey told Devex.

The House budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to the United Nations Population Fund.

The House budget bill rejects a Trump administration proposal to merge two foreign assistance accounts — the Economic Support Fund, which is managed by the State Department, and the Development Assistance account, managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The House’s decision to maintain two separate accounts could be a sign that lawmakers are skeptical of proposals to merge USAID and the State Department.

While the subcommittee markup was relatively smooth — resulting in a unanimous motion to send the bill to the full appropriations committee for a vote — every Democrat present at the hearing raised complaints about both the overall funding line provided in the budget and specific policy provisions or line items within it.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, argued that the House proposal to cut U.S. contributions to international organizations by $600 million from enacted 2017 levels would “undermine the United States standing on the global stage.”

Lowey noted that other countries might look to fill the gap created by a decrease in U.S. funding to international organizations, but that “we risk that the void will be filled by those who oppose our interests.”

The U.S. Senate has yet to release its budget proposal. When it does, that chamber will undergo a parallel process of debate and approval. The House and Senate will then look to “reconcile” their budget bills to arrive at a final spending plan before the fiscal year ends.

Adva Saldinger contributed to this report.

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About the author

  • 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.