US budget chief explains deep foreign aid cuts

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

As the U.S. aid community braces for Tuesday’s release of the White House budget proposal, budget director Mick Mulvaney offered some insight into why the Trump administration sees fit to slash foreign aid spending.

Speaking generally about programs slated for cutbacks, Mulvaney told reporters Monday that the White House is particularly skeptical of programs it feels haven’t sufficiently demonstrated a positive impact, as well as programs the U.S. Congress has not authorized with legislation.

Mulvaney said this was “the first time in a long time an administration has written a budget from the perspective of people paying the taxes,” instead of from the perspective of the people implementing the programs they fund. The Trump White House prioritized programs not according to the number of people they purport to benefit, but by whether or not they could be justified to a hypothetical “family in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” the budget director said.

Plenty of political, military, business and diplomatic leaders have spoken out in support of a robust role for development investments in U.S. foreign policy. On Monday, the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition published a letter from 225 business leaders urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to maintain foreign affairs spending because it supports American jobs, they argued. Trump’s own defense secretary, James Mattis, outlined the national security imperative for foreign aid when he was commander of U.S. Central Command, telling lawmakers, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Despite this show of support, U.S. foreign aid programs have consistently struggled to combat misperceptions about them among the American public. As Devex has frequently reported, U.S. citizens routinely overestimate how much the federal government spends on foreign aid. Large numbers of Americans have suggested the U.S. does “too much” about the rest of the world’s problems, and the majority of respondents to some polls think the U.S. should let other countries deal more with their own problems.

Congress, meanwhile, has not passed a full U.S. foreign aid authorization since 1985, leaving it up to budget appropriators to determine spending levels and priorities for U.S. global development policy and programs. One of the reasons lawmakers have hesitated to go forward with authorization is their sense that American voters might hold it against them, Diana Ohlbaum, an independent consultant and U.S. development expert, told Devex.

“It’s much easier for Members politically if they only have to vote on foreign aid once (in an appropriations bill) rather than twice (in authorization and appropriations bills) — or better yet, if they can hide it away in an omnibus bill and not have to vote on it at all,” Ohlbaum wrote to Devex by email.

The Trump administration sees unauthorized programs as those that have been permitted to live on past their expiration date, Mulvaney told reporters Monday.

The budget chief offered some insights that shed light on the administration’s approach. Asked about a few domestic programs that did not see their budgets eliminated entirely, but instead significantly curtailed, Mulvaney explained that that was part of a plan to gradually withdraw federal support for those programs over time.

That could spell bad news for small U.S. development agencies including the U.S. African Development Foundation and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which found themselves on a list of agencies to be eliminated, but then saw some funding maintained in a leaked budget document last week, as Devex reported. While Mulvaney did not comment on these agencies, his remarks could be taken to suggest that a dramatic budget reduction is one step on the path toward elimination.

Mulvaney also addressed some changes in the way that assistance — particularly military assistance — might be structured for some foreign government recipients. The administration will propose to move several countries from a direct grant program to a loan guarantee program, Mulvaney said, adding that this will not be the case for Israel or Egypt.

Mulvaney will testify about the budget in the House and Senate on Wednesday and Thursday this week. The budget director openly acknowledged that the president’s budget request is more of a statement of administration priorities than a blueprint Congress is likely to adopt.

“Do I expect them to adopt this wholeheartedly? … Absolutely not,” he said.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

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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.