US foreign aid policy must be bipartisan, lawmakers say

Representatives Ted Yoho and Adam Smith. Photos by: Gage Skidmore and CSIS

WASHINGTON — The co-chairs of the United States Congressional Caucus for Effective Foreign Assistance made a strong case for bipartisan support of foreign assistance programs the day after President Donald Trump questioned the return of aid investments in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

Foreign assistance programs play a key role in national security and in helping the U.S. counter China abroad, said Representative Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, and Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, speaking together at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. They said Congress must be responsible for regulating and reforming the way the U.S. spends its money.

“We looked at foreign aid being cut, and I agree 100 percent with [U.S. Secretary of Defense] General [James] Mattis, if you cut foreign aid, go ahead and the money you thought you saved buy more ammunition ‘cause you’re going to need it,” Yoho said, noting the importance of Congress’ role in institutionalizing foreign assistance tools that a president “can’t change at a whim.”

Trump said Tuesday that “moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.” He said he has ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to conduct a review of U.S. foreign assistance.

“It’s so important to have a good policy that’s bipartisan, that people have bought in on both sides,” Yoho said. “If we have that in place, it’s a tool that an administration can use and I think it brings stability long term to our foreign policy.”

One of the tools policymakers have proposed is the new development finance institution that would be created by the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development Act, which Yoho and Smith co-sponsored. It would fold the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and USAID’s Development Credit Authority into a new DFI with a $60 billion spending cap.

The bill has passed the House and was approved by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but had stalled due to a couple of objections from Senators. In order to get the bill passed in a timely manner, it has been attached to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, which was approved by the House on Wednesday. The FAA must be reauthorized by the end of the month, so it is expected to be passed in the Senate by the end of the week.

“It really leverages the private sector model,” Yoho said of the BUILD Act. “It’s a tool that we can use to direct foreign policy, leveraging private capital at very low risk to American taxpayers. We can do significant projects with this, especially in today’s time when you see China with their BRI — Belt [and] Road Initiative — this is a way that we can counter that and offer a better product.”

The BUILD Act is one step toward further consolidating U.S. foreign assistance operations into fewer agencies, allowing it to act more effectively and efficiently to achieve U.S. foreign assistance objectives, Smith said. It is a challenge for the public sector to coordinate its foreign assistance efforts to ensure that it can take advantage of all resources allocated to hundreds of different programs, he said.

“The second big problem with our foreign aid budget is it’s spread out all over the place. Nobody’s in charge,” Smith said. “You just don’t have a coordinated effort, again to make maximum use of the efforts.”

Instead, Smith would like to model the U.S. system after the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

“It’s a cabinet-level separate department, it’s not tucked under State or Ag[riculture] or Justice. It is, ‘this is what we’re doing in foreign development.’ Ultimately that’s where I would like to get to,” Smith said. “It might be a little ambitious.”

He noted that the House Caucus for Effective Foreign Assistance hasn’t officially endorsed such a plan, but Smith said he and Yoho have a similar “bite, bite, bite” approach to reform, starting with the BUILD Act and then looking at what small set of programs can next be shifted to become more efficient.

“That’s probably a more effective way to do it than just trying to say ‘we’re going to just totally throw everything out and start over again,’” Smith said. “Taking it piece by piece, that’s what we’re talking about right now. What’s next?”

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.