US lawmakers reject budget cuts, question USAID policy

House appropriations subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s budget request for fiscal year 2021. Screengrab from: House Appropriations Committee via YouTube

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers made use of their first opportunity to publicly question the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 foreign aid budget during a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. Legislators rejected the proposed budget cuts and addressed a wide-ranging set of issues, from COVID-19 to the “global gag rule.”

“Without robust funding for development and humanitarian programs, the U.S. will fail to maintain our position as a leader on the global stage ... We cannot, and will not, allow this to happen,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, who is chairman of the House appropriations state and foreign operations subcommittee.

More in-depth reading for Pro subscribers: Trump complicates USAID's already 'broken' budget process

Aid advocates say continued budget cut threats from the Trump administration are damaging U.S credibility with partners, and wasting administrative time for staff who must adapt programs to budget requests that will never become law.

The ranking member of the subcommittee, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, echoed those remarks, saying he suspected that the proposed cut would “be handled in a manner similar” to prior years, and that he looked forward to working with Lowey and others on the committee to write a bill that would provide “more appropriate levels of funding” to address current challenges.

In his opening remarks, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green said that the $19.6 billion requested for his agency was “an effort to balance fiscal responsibility here at home with our leadership role and national security imperatives on the world stage.”

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was top of mind for several lawmakers who asked Green about USAID’s role in the global response, despite the agency not being a part of the White House coronavirus task force.

USAID is contributing about $37 million to coronavirus efforts to help countries with surveillance, lab testing, public information campaigns, the distribution of personal protective equipment, and more. The contribution builds on more than $1 billion in global health security spending since 2009, which has helped countries improve their ability to detect and respond to outbreaks, Green said.  

While funding for an immediate response is critical, a major outbreak could also destabilize health systems and set back development progress, he said. USAID will need resources to strengthen and replenish health systems and make sure there are adequate resources to address those secondary impacts of the outbreak, Green said.

At several points, the committee members sought to highlight inconsistencies in the policy and funding proposed by the administration. Lowey questioned how the administration could achieve either its women's empowerment goals or its global health security goals with these cuts.

“The administration cannot be successful in these initiatives if we under- or de-fund the basics, which is exactly what the proposed 20% cut to our foreign assistance programs would do,” Lowey said, pointing out that the request would cut basic education by 66% and family planning by 59%.

“The administration cannot seriously believe that millions of women can achieve economic empowerment if they are unable to read, write, do math, or control the timing and number of children they have,” Lowey said.

She also pointed out that any potential benefit from an increase in global health security “would surely be offset” by cutting 34% to all other global health programs.

Other lawmakers posed questions about the agency’s countering malign Kremlin influence strategy, and how that might be achieved at the same time as funding to countries including Ukraine and Georgia are proposed to be slashed.

Rogers also asked Green about USAID’s role and strategy in countering the Chinese aid model. USAID is working to help countries understand what they are being offered as they consider deals for projects or investments and are looking to develop tools to help partner countries evaluate those opportunities, Green said.

USAID is also helping countries improve their enabling environment, including rule of law, regulatory predictability, and transparency, so that investors are more likely to do business in those countries, he said.

Rep. David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, pushed Green about the administration's policies in the “Northern Triangle” countries, questioning not just the lack of spending but the seeming philosophy not to distribute funding to tackle root causes of migration.

Green said that the administration is using the “pause” in development assistance to improve development metrics associated with migration so that when it can get back to work, it can focus on the best programs.

Several lawmakers also asked about a report the administration had promised Congress on the effect of the Mexico City Policy or global gag rule, which states that foreign NGOs that receive any U.S. global health funding are prohibited from engaging in abortion-related activities, including providing counseling or education.

Green acknowledged that the report about the impacts of the policy was overdue and said it was working its way through the interagency process and he would share it as soon as he was able.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter 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.