US House aid budget bill pushes back against Trump administration policies

A man cycles past Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo by: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

WASHINGTON — A bill approved Friday would increase U.S. foreign aid funding by 3.9% from fiscal year 2019, and reject the Trump administration’s proposed cuts.

The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee charged with the state and foreign affairs budget approved the bill, which also seeks to address a number of issues that have not been at the center of the last few budget cycles: climate change, reproductive health, and limitations on how the administration can redirect funds.

Though the bill is an early step in the budget process, chairwoman Nita Lowey said it “reflects Congressional priorities to advance U.S. foreign policy and our foreign assistance programs.”

“It upholds many bipartisan positions of this committee and of Congress. It largely follows the language of the FY 2019 Omnibus, with notable exceptions on certain issues, such as reproductive health, climate change, and multilateral assistance,” said Lowey, a Democrat from New York who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations and the subcommittee on state and foreign operations.

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Several Republicans, including ranking member of the subcommittee Representative Hal Rogers, from Kentucky, said that while the bill includes funding for key issues that everyone can support, “it’s a shame that these types of programs are undermined by partisan policy riders that will end any hope of support for this bill from both sides of the aisle.”

Rogers added that it is counterproductive to continue marking up bills before the House and Senate can come to some sort of agreement on the topline numbers.

While he supports foreign operations, he said he can’t support the bill because of a lack of agreement on those numbers. “An overall spending increase of this magnitude across all the bills is neither realistic nor sustainable without a plan,” he said at the markup Friday.

At the heart of the partisan concerns mentioned is the inclusion in the budget bill of the Global HER Act, which aims to permanently repeal the “global gag rule.” The bill also prohibits current and previous funds from being used to implement the Mexico City Policy and reinstates funding to the U.N. Population Fund. Unless provisions permanently overturning the Mexico City Policy are taken out, the bill has no hope of becoming law, Rogers said.

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The bill allocates $750 million for family planning and reproductive health and directs that none of the funds can be spent to implement the Mexico City Policy.

“In order to reduce reliance on abortion in developing nations, funds shall be available only to voluntary family planning projects which offer, either directly or through referral to, or information about access to, a broad range of family planning methods and services,” the bill says.

The bill also seeks to shift policy in some other ways: It recategorizes the Economic Support Fund as title IV security assistance, rather than title III bilateral economic assistance, and “redirects most long-term development, democracy, and governance funding to the Development Assistance or Democracy Fund accounts.”

In August, when rumors swirled that the administration would try to rescind billions of dollars of the state and foreign operations budget, ESF was the biggest target. The fund is an account managed by the Department of State that provides assistance to countries where the U.S. has a strategic interest.

It tends to have fewer oversight or reporting requirements than development funds, but the administration has favored it, recommending in several budget bills that the development assistance account be eliminated and proposing to redirect some of those funds through ESF.

The funding bill also looks to counter President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was stopping aid to “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador because citizens of those countries are trying to cross the U.S. border. Some $500 million from fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2017 funding is impacted in part because of the way those budget bills were written, allowing the administration to spend “up to” the amount appropriated by Congress. The funding bill, and a separate piece of legislation introduced Thursday, both work to change that.

The funding bill includes language that “not less than” $540.8 million should be made available to countries in Central America and it changes language in the budgets for the past three fiscal years to require the administration to spend the money allocated by Congress.

The funding should prioritize “activities that address the key factors that contribute to the migration of unaccompanied, undocumented minors to the United States” and at least $45 million should support attorney generals and other efforts to tackle corruption, the bill says.

Another key issue that concerned global health advocates — support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — has been addressed in the House bill. The bill allocates $1.56 billion for maintaining the U.S. commitment to provide one-third of the organization’s budget. The administration’s proposed budget would have reduced that commitment to 25% and provided less funding for the Global Fund. Advocates lauded Congress’ decision to meet the organization’s needs so that gains are not jeopardized.

Another key issue that came up in the committee meeting to mark up the bill on Friday was the new U.S. Development Finance Corporation, which will officially be operational Oct. 1.

The House budget includes $164 million for the agency and $2 million for its inspector general — $134 million less than the administration’s request. The House bill provides $125 million less for equity investments than the administration requested, and several Republican subcommittee members brought up concerns that without the ability to provide equity investments, the new agency would be hobbled in its efforts to provide an alternative to Chinese “predatory lending.”

There have been questions about how equity investments will be counted and appropriated, and whether the administration’s proposal to treat them much like grants for budget purposes would significantly limit the amount of equity the agency can invest.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, said that while equity investments can look complicated, he hopes that there will be an opportunity to further address how they will be handled and “put in new architecture” around the investments, he said at the markup.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.