What Democratic control of the Senate could mean for US foreign aid

U.S. senators and senate clerks at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Greg Nash / Pool via Reuters

Two runoff elections in the U.S. state of Georgia this week handed the Democrats a slim majority in the Senate, which development advocates say could impact aid funding, appointments, and policy in the next administration.

“There’s an opportunity here. It opens the door to more possibilities of some kind of robust agenda,” said Conor Savoy, executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, adding that the development community needs to be “cleareyed” that it will still be a challenge to get priorities passed through both houses of Congress.

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In 2009 — the last time there was a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress after a presidential election — there was a sense that there was a clear opportunity for a robust development agenda, but it didn’t really materialize, he said, adding that the development community needs to continue to work in a bipartisan manner and engage Republicans and Democrats.

The majorities in both houses in the United States are narrower this year, and the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

“Fundamentally advancing significant lasting changes has always required strong bipartisan support. That hasn’t changed, especially with narrow margins,” said Erin Collinson, the director of policy outreach at the Center for Global Development.

Despite those challenges, the Democratic majority presents some true opportunities, some advocates said.

“The game has really changed overnight,” said Jonathan Rucks, senior director of policy and advocacy at PAI. “You can’t underestimate or undervalue how important it is.”

There are a number of areas where a Democratic majority could help foreign aid, advocates told Devex.

Process

Some of the key changes won’t necessarily be major new pieces of legislation, but more about how the Senate will work and the process of governance.

One key area where a Democratic majority is likely to help is in a more rapid confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees, putting development leadership in place more swiftly.

“Lots of acting or empty positions is detrimental to progress, so hopefully a Democratic Senate will expedite confirmations,” said Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.

Democrats will control what gets voted on and what is discussed in committees and Biden won’t have to contend with obstruction from the Senate, Rucks said. Before the Georgia results came in, PAI was thinking that the Biden administration would have to use the regulatory process to address sexual and reproductive health and rights, but now there is an opportunity to use legislative mechanisms to do so, Rucks said.

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is likely to be focused on its oversight role, looking to assess the “damage” of the past four years and will work to ensure that the U.S. Agency for International Development reforms are finalized, Savoy said.

Democratic control of the Senate means there will be “greater leverage in negotiations on spending bills, especially with foreign aid issues that are more controversial” including climate change and family planning, Collinson said.

Policy

In addition to sexual and reproductive health and rights, there is also an opportunity to advance climate change policies, and there is a greater likelihood of more funding for foreign assistance, advocates told Devex.

It seems clear that the Biden administration will be focused on COVID-19 response at the start, and how it determines it wants to address the issue globally will have a large impact, but Democratic control of the Senate could help pave the way for more engagement internationally, O’Keefe said.

“I’m hopeful that the Democratic Senate would see that the needs in the world are so outstripping U.S. commitment that they will support the administration in a much more robust foreign aid program.”

— Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy, Catholic Relief Services

CRS and other organizations will be pushing for about $20 billion in global COVID-19 response funding in the next supplemental funding package, he said, adding that the odds are greater now. A Democratic Senate could also be helpful in bringing greater attention to vaccine equity and putting in place funding and support for those efforts, O’Keefe said.

A group of development advocates will be pushing the administration to double foreign assistance during the four-year term, O’Keefe said. “I’m hopeful that the Democratic Senate would see that the needs in the world are so outstripping U.S. commitment that they will support the administration in a much more robust foreign aid program,” he said.

Democratic control of the Senate also creates the potential for more foreign aid funding, including for a greater global response to COVID-19, Savoy said, but added that the development community should be cautious with its expectations. “I would suspect there’s going to be some significant headwinds from Republicans on debt and deficit now that there are Democrats in control.”

The Biden administration has said it will prioritize climate change and Democratic leadership in the Senate could enable funding for adaptation at scale, either to the Green Climate Fund or to some of USAID’s adaptive programs, which may get support that they need, O’Keefe said.

There has been greater bipartisan cooperation on climate change in the last year or two, “but Democratic control will enable faster, more robust international climate response, which is huge,” he said.

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One of the key issues advocates expect will get more attention and potentially more funding is sexual and reproductive health and rights and advocates hope they will be able to pass legislation that would permanently repeal the “global gag” rule.

While getting there may be a long road, a Democratic Senate means that there will likely be more hearings and discussions about those issues and advocates will be able to share their evidence and lay the groundwork for future legislation, Rucks said.

PAI has already been working to do so in the House of Representatives, and Rucks said he thinks passage of the Global HER Act doing away with the Mexico City Policy is possible, adding that there was bipartisan support for it last year.

With President Donald Trump’s expansion of the policy to all global health funding and a body of evidence on the negative impacts and harms of that expansion, advocates “have an unprecedented case to make” including to those who might not typically step up in such efforts, said Serra Sippel, the president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, CHANGE.

Biden needs to send a strong message not only by rescinding the global gag rule as one of his first actions in office but also needs to send a strong message showing a commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights, she said.

“I would suspect there’s going to be some significant headwinds from Republicans on debt and deficit now that there are Democrats in control.”

— Conor Savoy, executive director, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network

“When it comes to gender equality, sexual reproductive health and rights, Biden has no excuses to do the bare minimum and continue the status quo set by the previous administration,” with Democrats in control of the Senate, Sippel said.

Other issues that likely will get more attention are diversity and inclusion in U.S. foreign policy, and the U.S. policy on forced displacement and refugee resettlement, Collinson said. Another effort to pass a State Department authorization bill — one hasn’t been passed since 2003 — is also a possibility, as is legislation on global health security, depending on the administration’s position, Savoy said.

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.